Dominique Browning using a slow-cooker
Photo: Tara Donne
If you can't stand the heat…why not let dinner cook itself? Rediscover a classic '70s gadget that shoos you out of the kitchen and gives you plenty of time to savor.
I am not a confident cook. (I can already hear the loving snickers of my sister, my mother, even my dear children.)

I confess: I am not really a cook at all. What I am is a great eater. I have been told (and this during a blind date, no less) that I eat like a horse. I love food. I'll try anything. Yet when it comes to throwing dinner parties , my strength is presentation. I love setting a beautiful table; I love arranging candles and rocks and mosses and other weird centerpieces. I love an excuse to clean the house from top to bottom—again. I'm a housewife, in the truest sense of the word. All things related to home maintenance are appealing. Wash a dozen wineglasses by hand? Love to; no problem.

But cooking? I've never had a problem with baking, but one cannot live by muffins alone. I converted to the vegetarian faith the first time I had to cook for myself, and not for reasons of morality, but for reasons of confusion. The alchemy of food seems impenetrably, deliciously mysterious. Plus, I'm ignorant. When I was interviewing for a job in Texas, I was taken to a famous barbecue joint outside Austin. Asked how I liked my barbecue, I replied, "Rare." I lose my place in recipes and double things or leave them out; I confuse tsps with tbsps. You can appreciate how easy that is to do, especially if you can no longer see that well without reading glasses. I lose my appetite when cooking because I feel as though I've been playing with my food for an hour—or else I've eaten most of the critical ingredients. I have always been terribly absentminded. Well, my mind goes somewhere, I suspect, just not necessarily to the task at hand. I'm capable of forgetting that something's in the oven until smoke begins to curl out as a gentle reminder.

However. There comes a time in most lives when it feels necessary to have people at one's table. Or at least return the tenth—who do I think I'm fooling, the 20th—dinner invitation. That time arrived in November 2007 when I lost my job. Though I soon got busy all day long with various projects, including vacuuming my closets, I had lost the company of colleagues, and missed the hum and buzz of an office. Suddenly, though, I had plenty of time for...friends! And I wanted to gather them to my heart, in my home. I wanted a way to return the love I was being given.

Then, for Christmas, I was presented with not one but two slow cookers—one by my son and his girlfriend, the other by my parents. I don't know what the message was meant to be, exactly. You're slow, so this should be about your speed? Either that, or some recognition that the best part of me is still stuck in the '70s, the heyday of the Crock-Pot. I could be very happy baking my own bread, throwing my mugs, growing my herbs, and tie-dyeing my clothes. I may, frankly, be headed in that general direction. Whatever it was, both strange, shiny vessels sat marinating in their boxes for a few months until I decided it was now or never. It was my son's birthday, and I decided to give him a party, and as he is too old to be thrown into a Chuck E. Cheese's or wherever harried mothers celebrate these days, we invited ten of his friends from high school and college to my house and started planning the menu. I am very pleased to report that I have also reached the time in my life when my children are teaching me how to do things, rather than the other way around.

This was the moment slow cooking changed my life.

Finally I have found a way to cook that is exactly my speed. Food snobs—and they come out of the woodwork the minute you start raving about slow cookers—will tell you that you're simply braising, and that special equipment isn't necessary. They may be right technically, but they're wrong in spirit. The operative word is special, as in equipment that gives you confidence. The key thing about a slow cooker is that once everything goes in, you simply are not allowed to open the lid. You do not want to let the magic escape. It quickly became apparent that it was impossible even for me to screw up slow-cooker recipes. I'm a fan of hearty dishes and the wines that stand up to them. To say nothing of the immensely appealing variety of crockery in which you get to serve soups and stews . Once I got a few slow-cooker recipes down—and there are good ones for every season—I even began to feel better about trying to make things in other pans on my stove.

But the most wonderful thing about slow cooking is that it gives you the gift of time. It bestows a gentle, heartening halo of feeling that everything is, or will soon be, under control. This is imperative for people like me who (a) are anxious about having people over for dinner because of inexperience, (b) are plagued by the presentation hang-up and eager to make everything look insouciantly terrific, (c) have their dinner table in the kitchen, so everything has to be spotless before everyone sits down, and (d) once the clouds of preparing the main course begin to clear always remember three things they forgot to buy on the last four trips to the market, such as wine , dessert , or cheese. There is time for all of it—because your slow cooker is doing the cooking while you are catching up with yourself.

While you are preparing dinner for ten: You can leave the house. You can go to a yoga class and not panic upon awakening from a two-hour corpse pose. You can knit several more inches of the scarf you've been hauling around for the past year. You can practice that Haydn piano sonata. You can organize your linen closet. You can weed the garden. In fact, you can put in a garden. You can do all these things—and still be cooking! It is nothing short of miraculous. And by the time your meal is cooked, you are guaranteed to have worked up an appetite again. You are also guaranteed to have leftovers, because with slow cookers, there are no small gestures.

Those of us in the doldrums of unemployment need largesse. We need to feel that we are loved, wanted, and respected even while we are feeling rejected, outcast, and downtrodden. Many of us even have to learn how to ask for what we need. We've been so accustomed to giving others what they need, and on deadline, no less. Those gifts of slow cookers turned out to be a lot more meaningful than anyone could have anticipated. And how odd that they came from both generational directions—from concerned parents who could see that their child was feeling lost, and from a loving child who could see that his mom felt hapless. I'm not one to go on about doors closing and windows opening, because none of that means a thing if you can't pick yourself up off the floor to appreciate the grandeur of the view out that open window. Anyway, in my case, when that one door shut, I finally realized it was a side door after all. I found the courage to open my front door, and welcome into my home the most important things in life. I always knew what they were. I had just forgotten to make time for them.

Friends. Slow cooking. Slow living. Slow love.

Indian Lamb and Spinach Curry Try this Crock-Pot recipe:
Indian Lamb and Spinach Curry

or another of Browning's favorites, Tarragon Chicken

Dominique Browning was most recently the editor in chief of House & Garden . Her new book, Slow Love (Atlas), will be published in May 2010.


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