A few years ago, foodies announced that Spain was the new France, in the same way that fashionistas decide that brown is the new black and 40 is the new 20 (I’ll drink to that!). With slow cooker books piling up, my pronouncement is that slow is the new fast. One caveat: A slow cooker is not a magic cure-all. Just remember that axiomatic computer warning—garbage in, garbage out. Sadly, it holds true for most of life.

Stephanie O’Dea made a New Year’s resolution in 2007 to use her slow cooker every day in 2008 and blog about it  (a familiar approach, but I doubt this one will make it to the silver screen). The result is Make It Fast, Cook It Slow, with over 300 recipes for everything from beverages to breakfast to baking (yes, you can make banana bread in a slow cooker in four hours; the question is, why bother?), from meat and meatless mains, poultry, pasta and casseroles (though I’ve always thought of a slow cooker as self-propelled casserole) to desserts and mostly non-edible “fun stuff,” like crayons, play dough and shrinky dinks. All recipes are presented with usable directions and a “verdict” on the finished product. Each underscores the real advantage of a slow cooker: Do the prep when you have time, and let it cook when your time is needed elsewhere, like earning a living.

Michele Scicolone had an epiphany on a street in Rome that opened her eyes to the wonders of a slow cooker for Italian food. Once she realized that well-prepped ingredients could simmer happily for hours, unattended, she was off and running. The fruit of her epiphany is, no surprise, The Italian Slow Cooker, where tradition and innovation meet and meld with grand success. Italian soups are naturals, especially when they are bean-based like Chickpea and Porcini Soup or a classic Pasta Fagioli. Rich, redolent sauces, so essential to Italian cuisine, from a basic Sweet Tomato Sauce to a bevy of deep-flavored ragus made with beef, swordfish, chicken, turkey or super-tasty pork shoulder, only get better with slow cooking. Risotto with Artichokes and Creamy Polenta with Gorgonzola and Mascarpone, dishes that usually need lots of babying, do brilliantly without constant caretaking. And Michele includes fabulous meat, poultry and seafood recipes, plus veggies (Spinach Parmesan Sformato) and desserts (Pears in Marsala), to round out this slow, easy, energy-efficient take on Italian excellence. Make it Italian. Take it slow. Non dimenticare—good things in, good things out!

A sure bet
Dawn Welch owns and operates the Rock Cafe, a “small family joint with a big reputation” on Route 66, just outside Stroud, Oklahoma. The Rock, first opened in 1939, has been Dawn’s domain since 1993. It’s a gathering place, a landmark, but most of all it’s a “human refueling station,” where Dawn’s down-to-earth comfort food makes patrons feel at home. A cost-conscious cook, Dawn has learned to avoid waste, use inexpensive ingredients and give leftovers a new lease on life, and in her very first cookbook, Dollars to Donuts, she serves up her recipes and hard-earned wisdom for “getting it done, having fun and saving money too.” Her mission is all about getting the biggest bang for your buck (every recipe includes cost per serving), and toward that noble and timely end, she shows you how to strategize, budget (sensible splurge options included), organize, shop in bulk, take advantage of sales and cook big to maximize main-dish spinoffs. For instance, whole Rosemary and Thyme Roasted Chickens can easily morph into Almond Chicken Salad, Enchiladas, Udon Soup and a savory stew with dumplings. Dollars to donuts, Dawn’s advice is worth twice its price.

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