How a slow cooker can be a college kid’s go-to appliance

The+double-decker+cheeseburger+casserole+layers+the+expected+elements+%28ground+beef%2C+tomato%2C+cheese%2C+pickle+relish%2C+etc.%29+in+an+unexpected+slow+cooker+dish.+%28Michael+Tercha%2FChicago+Tribune%2FTNS%29

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The double-decker cheeseburger casserole layers the expected elements (ground beef, tomato, cheese, pickle relish, etc.) in an unexpected slow cooker dish. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

By Bill Daley | Chicago Tribune

Forget the hot plate, microwave, George Foreman grill and even pots and pans.

The humble slow cooker is all college students need to pack this fall to stay well-fed.

“Think about the slow cooker as an all-in-one cooking center,” writes Bruce Weinstein in an email. He is co-author with Mark Scarbrough of 2014’s “The Great American Slow Cooker Book.”

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“It’s a perfect item for simply heating up canned stuff too,” Weinstein added. “But the great thing about the slow cooker is that they can set it all up, even if it’s canned soup or canned chili, in the morning, and it’s ready when they get back from class anytime.”

Indeed, cookbook author Anupy Singla set off to college and grad school armed with slow cookers in three sizes so she could cook the foods she loved. Singla, author of 2010’s “The Indian Slow Cooker” among other books, underscores the advantage that the appliance doesn’t require “a lot of hands-on time.”

Still, while Weinstein notes a slow cooker can double as an ice bucket in a pinch or an air freshener if you cook some cinnamon sticks on high, it has its limitations.

Don’t expect browning or much precooking, Weinstein wrote, noting recipes should include ingredients “that are ready to go.”

The freezer and the salad bar are going to be the best place to shop, he added. Now, you might not need three slow cookers, but even one can be amazingly versatile whether you use it in your room (check the dorm rules first) or in a communal kitchen.

Here are a few ideas on how to use your slow cooker from Singla, Weinstein, Scarbrough — and me. Check out one of their cookbooks, or surf the web for how-to info.

1. Oatmeal

Get breakfast going the night before, using 1 part steel-cut oats to 4 parts water. Cook 6 hours on low. Use honey packets from the dining hall to sweeten.

2. Soup

Throw 1 cups dried legumes (lentils, beans, etc.), cup rice and/or grains or seeds (like quinoa), 2 cups chopped vegetables (onions, carrots, celery, tomato), 6 to 7 cups water and salt and pepper to taste in a slow cooker. Cook on high for about 5 hours.

3. Pulled pork

Cook a boneless pork loin with a bottle of barbecue sauce for 8 hours on low. Have friends bring the buns and beer.

4. Cheesy grits

An alternative to the usual macaroni and cheese that can be topped with some store-bought, precooked cocktail shrimp. Use 4 parts water to 1 part grits, cook 6 hours and stir in cheese equal in volume to the raw grits before serving.

5. Bibimbap

Cook 2 cups brown rice in 3  cups hot water for 2 hours on high, 6 hours on low). Stir in as much chili sauce as you like, kimchee if you have it, greens and veggies snagged from the dining hall salad bar, leftover cooked chicken, beef or pork, if you eat meat and, an optional raw egg (use a pasteurized egg if there are health concerns); toss it all until well mixed.

6. Coffee or tea

Machines kept at a low temperature setting of around 200 degrees can be used to heat water for both beverages.

7. Chili with franks

Heat three cans of chili in the slow cooker with three to four sliced hot dogs, 2 hours on high or 6 on low. Top with grated cheese.

8. Spiced kidney beans

Put 3 cups dried kidney beans (rinsed) in a slow cooker. Add 1 onion chopped, 2 chopped tomatoes, minced ginger if you have it, 4 minced cloves garlic, 2 to 4 chopped chilies. Season with 4 whole cloves, 2 tablespoons salt, 1 tablespoon cumin seeds and 2 teaspoons each garam masala and turmeric powder. Cook on high for 12 hours, adding 1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro about 5 minutes before the end of cooking.

9. Hard-cooked eggs

Fill cooker halfway with water, and set on high before going to bed. In the morning, water should be steaming hot. Add eggs, cook 18 minutes.

10. Chocolate fondue

Melt chocolate squares in slow cooker on low, up to a few hours. Stir in enough milk or some other liquid (bottled Brass Monkey, the cocktail, worked for me once in a pinch) to loosen the texture for dipping. Pair with cubed pound cake and chopped fruit.

Double-decker cheeseburger casserole

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 5 hours

Makes: 6 servings

A recipe from “The Great American Slow Cooker Book” by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough.

No need to cook the pasta beforehand, and feel free to swap out the cheddar for Swiss, pepper jack or Gruyere. Chow-chow or salsa can sub for the pickle relish.

The book offers the recipe three ways, depending on the capacity of one’s slow cooker. The amounts given below are for a 4- to 5-quart slow cooker.

2 pounds lean ground beef, preferably 93 percent lean

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

3 tablespoons Italian-seasoned tomato paste

10 ounces cheddar cheese, grated (about 2 cups)

1  cups whole wheat ziti or regular ziti or penne

3 tablespoons jarred pickle relish 3 tablespoons ketchup

1. Stir the ground beef, onion, Worcestershire sauce and tomato paste in a large bowl until the meat and onion are slathered in the sauce and tomato paste.

2. Make even, full layers of the ingredients in the slow cooker in this order: half the meat mixture, half the cheese, all of the pasta, all of the pickle relish, all of the ketchup, the remainder of the meat mixture, and the remainder of the cheese.

3. Cover and cook on low for 5 hours, or until the cheese has melted and even browned a bit at the edges, and until the casserole is fairly firm to the touch. Can keep on warm for 3 hours. Nutrition information per serving: 500 calories, 23 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 142 mg cholesterol, 28 g carbohydrates, 5 g sugar, 45 g protein, 768 mg sodium, 3 g fiber

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