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Many of us grew up thinking that hearty, healthy meals meant hours of preparation and stirring over a hot stove. Even when food wasn’t being served every minute, we had to check that it wasn’t sticking to a pan or drying out in the oven. Before the 1970s, there were no crock pots or microwaves. A woman had little time to spend outside. That was then.

Today, autumn is here; the air has a freshness of its own. At my home in the Ozarks, the trees show their fall colors as golden blossoms grace the hillsides. This morning the deer grazing in the meadow below the walnut forest seemed to ask me to follow them. He wanted to go out and play!

However, there are still meals to prepare, clothes to wash, people to care for today. To allow me time to sit and watch wildlife, I am learning how to make better use of my slow cooker, my Crock Pot. Cooking meals with the slow cooker has many benefits, including fewer dishes to wash, less time to attend to food on the stove, a cooler kitchen, and less energy used.

I am learning to adapt some of my favorite recipes to this way of cooking. I learned early on not to use as much liquid in the slow cooker as it naturally captures moisture and needs little added. Also, any dairy products should be added near the end of the cooking time so they don’t curdle.

An added benefit, which makes all the difference to the budget, is the ability to cook cheaper, tougher cuts of meat. Even the toughest cuts will come out tender when simmered for a long period of time. At a time when we’re all mindful of our budgets, this is a real bonus.

If you are using fatty meats or skin-on chicken, it is best to brown the meat first before adding it to the slow cooker. You’ll have low-fat meals because you’re not using oil like you do when you saute or saute. Remove fats from any liquid you add as well.

Surprisingly, vegetables will take longer to cook than meats, so you’ll want to cut them into small, thin pieces. Layer the vegetables on the bottom and sides of the pot, where the heat will be, for more even cooking. You will soon learn which vegetables take the longest to cook.

Here are six keys to successful slow cooking:

1. Buy cheaper cuts of meat; tough, lean cuts will cook up tender and juicy.

2. Choose fresh produce, cut into small pieces just before cooking.

3. Remove fats from liquids before adding them to the pot.

4. Allow plenty of time to cook at a low temperature to get the best flavors and textures.

5. Move cooked food to a clean container and refrigerate as soon as possible.

6. Never use a slow cooker to reheat leftovers.

I am looking forward to sharing some great recipes with you in future articles as we enter the winter seasons. Did I hear someone say “stew”? Enjoy!

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