By Jill Tham

After my bridal shower, I sat on the floor surrounded by a pile of foreign kitchen gadgets and small appliances when one larger box caught my eye-it was a slow cooker. Instantly, a familiar odour came to mind, triggering visions of my mother’s dreaded crockpot spare ribs I endured as a child. Thinking I would never use the crockpot, I returned it to the store in exchange for towels.

Five years later I found myself resuming work fulltime after completing my first maternity leave. I struggled to balance work and home responsibilities. Frustration grew as friends and co-workers bragged about their nanny or mother-in-law who slaved over the stove while they were at work. With no such remedies to fall back on, I realized I was never going to get dinner on the table in a timely manner without a plan.  Recalling those spare ribs, I reluctantly decided the slow cooker was worth a try, or I would be shouting my dinner order out of the car window and into a speaker box every night.

First, I researched on-line the different features available for crockpots and their costs.  Uncertain if I would ever need automatic turn on features, I decided upon a six-quart size with high, low, and warming settings. On-line reviews boasted about removable liners for easy cleaning, so that option was added to my list of must-haves. Convinced I would never use the crockpot longer than a week, I waited for a sale. After I purchased my new small appliance, I immediately began reading the instruction manual. I was astonished to read “just pop your removable liner into the fridge the night before and put it directly into the base in the morning.” I was so elated I could have been convinced the crock-pot would fly me to the moon too. An instant wave of calmness came over me as I realized this might not be so bad. Now all I needed were some solid crowd-pleasing recipes.

Determined to come up with a good base of at least five recipes my family would enjoy, I headed to the public library and buried myself in cookbooks. From family favourites to quick and easy recipes, I read them all, putting sticky notes on pages of recipes I would attempt to make. From soups to stews and cassoulets, I was excited about the possibilities.

Now came the hard part, trial-and-error cooking.  Some experimental recipes resulted in a “mmm yummy” verdict, while others were declared “yucky” and pushed away by my toddler before trying a bite. Once again I remembered those crockpot meals my mom used to make. Thirty years later, I have a new appreciation for my mom as I go through the same struggles she did. Some things never change; the fight about food still reigns true. I grew up in the new wave of boxed foods, where suddenly dinner was at your table with the push of a microwave button. I never realized until now the enormous effort my mom made to provide healthy meals while working evenings.

When “Gone All Day Casserole” went straight into the green compost bin and “Cheesy Ham and Broccoli” tasted like burnt processed cheese; I began to lose hope. My spirits lifted when my son took an interest in helping me in the kitchen. He began looking at pictures in the crockpot cookbooks, picking out what he wanted to try. Together, we put all the ingredients into the base and stirred the contents. Taste-tasting new dishes became his favourite past-time. I got a huge kick out of my little Gordon Ramsay saying, “Needs more salt mom.” Making it a family event gave me the motivation I needed to stay afloat and not drown in an abyss of fast food.

At times, some failed recipes could have been avoided by paying more attention to detail and general crock-pot tips. I learned the hard way – literally that meat cooks faster than veggies and following proper layering instructions can avoid raw carrots in your beef stew. On the opposite end of the spectrum, adding tender vegetables like tomatoes and mushrooms during the last 45 minutes can prevent overcooked vegetables. Dairy products should go in last and watery dishes can be thickened by turning the heat up and leaving the lid off near the end of the cooking time. Ever wonder why your meal tastes bland? Add your herbs and spices during the last hour of cooking, as slow cookers can sometimes water down the flavours.

At the end of what seemed like a yearlong process, trying one or two new recipes a month, a short list of my family’s top five favourite recipes emerged. They included:
•    Tomato and Lentil Soup (Goes great the next day with grilled cheese)
•    Fireside Beef Stew (on your way home grab a loaf of bread)
•    Meatball Cassoulet (pair it with biscuits)
•    No-boil Lasagna (add a side salad)
•    Ranch Pork Roast (three bean salad makes a great side dish)

My quest for crockpot meals to satisfy my family is an on-going job, but one that I now enjoy. I have found a way to balance work and family obligations with the use of my crockpot. It’s a relief to come home to a savoury smelling house and extra time for family activities. Just when I have finally mastered the craft of the crock-pot another gadget on the market catches my eye – the pressure cooker, boasting to save time and energy.