Saturday, June 2, 2012

Cookbook Review: The 150 Healthiest Slow Cooker Recipes on Earth

By:  Tom Natan

I admit it – I love my slow cooker.  So I was excited to take a look at The 150 Healthiest Slow Cooker Recipes on Earth.  Johnny Bowden and Jeannette Bessinger, nutrition experts, have collaborated on other healthy eating books, and this time they’ve looked to food we typically think of as rich and hearty.

The slow cooker is ideal for making meals without a lot of fat and added calories because of the way it works.  You don’t need much liquid, because it cooks at a lower temperature and there’s much less evaporation, so the flavor s end up rich and concentrated.  The slow cooker also allows you to add root vegetables you might not have often on a weeknight because they take longer to cook, like carrots, parsnips, turnips, and rutabaga, so there’s variety in the recipes that also complements the theme of eating better.  And while many of the recipes are what we might think of as winter food, there’s no reason not to eat them year-round, especially since the kitchen will stay cooler if you’re not using the oven.

Bowden and Bessinger are up front in saying that this isn’t a book for someone who hasn’t used a slow cooker before.  Since every model is different, you have to have used yours quite a bit to understand how quickly things cook, whether meats dry out, etc.  Especially since they recommend expensive ingredients like grass-fed meats in their recipes – you won’t want to experiment with those!  It’s also not a reference that you’ll use if you’re trying to do the basics, like simple cooking of different kinds dried beans or adapting one of your own recipes to use in the slow cooker.  (For that kind of information, I like to use Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook, by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann.)  

In terms of flavor, the recipes sound good and have some interesting combinations, like orange and clove in beef stew, and chicken rubbed with Indian or Moroccan spices.  I also like the emphasis on using the slow cooker as a tool for making sauces, chutneys, and even lemon curd without having to pay too much attention to them.  And even though I don’t use my slow cooker to make beverages or desserts (I like my baked desserts to have a crust, which the slow cooker won’t really do because it steams rather than bakes), those recipes sound delicious too.

Because Bowden and Bessinger use the slow cooker as not just a set-it-and-forget-it all-day cooking unit, though, there are a lot of recipes in here that take much less time than your average workday, and you have to be there to stir, change the temperature setting (if you can’t set it to change automatically), or take the food out.  And many of those that take three to four hours aren’t something you’ll do during the week, which is when most people typically turn to their slow cookers for meals that cook while they’re at work.  It would help to have more information on how long you can leave some of these recipes on the warm setting that most slow cookers change to automatically when the cooking’s done.

All in all, it’s a good book to have around for the recipes.  But to tell the truth, they don’t seem all that much healthier than many slow cooker recipes in other books.  Instead, Bowden and Bessinger give a lot of individual pieces of information on the health benefits of each ingredient.  That’s the problem for me, because it’s either too much or not enough.  

Let’s face it:  virtually every food that’s not empty calories has health benefits.  These recipes aren’t designed to maximize those benefits, but mostly for flavor.   Perfectly fine, but then why allow us to infer that we’re eating better with these than with other authors’ recipes?  On the other hand, if we want to know real specifics, this book won’t be enough.  To be fair, it’s not designed as a treatment for individual illnesses.  Still, we get factoids like “one study showed that 85% percent of patients with GI upset who were given extract of artichokes experienced significant relief from nausea, stomach pain, and vomiting.”  Does this mean that the small amount of artichokes cooked in “Easiest Lean Artichoke Chicken” will do the same thing as happened in that one study?  With one serving, or do you have to eat it every day for a year?  And if it was “one study” that showed this, were there others that didn’t?
By making the claims but leaving out the details, Bowden and Bessinger add a lot more words but not much more information you can really use.  In the end, I found myself skipping the health talk and concentrating on the food – and I think you will too.

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