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By Emily Paster
Until a few weeks ago, I had never owned a slow-cooker or crockpot. My mother never owned one either. I guess I thought those kind of machines weren't for our kind of cooking; that is to say, healthy, flavorful, from-scratch cooking. I was under the impression that slow-cookers were only for making dishes like pot roast seasoned with packaged onion soup mix — definitely not my kind of cooking.
But in the past year or so, I learned that cooks whom I admire — people like my friend Chef Druck — owned slow-cookers and used them frequently. I remember once asking my friends' advice on what to make for dinner on a day when my in-laws were coming into town and I was not going to be home for much of the day. "Make a stew in your slow-cooker," one of them suggested. "I don't have a slow-cooker," I replied. My friends looked shocked. Clearly, I was missing out. What mom hasn't faced the dilemma of what to make for a nice meal on a day when she was going to be running around right up to dinner time? If a slow-cooker was the answer to that problem, I was more than willing to set aside my preconceived notions about such an appliance.
Well, I finally got a chance to try cooking with a slow-cooker. A few weeks ago, I received my very own Ninja Cooking System. Before my Ninja Cooking System arrived at my door, I attended a blogger event at The Wooden Spoon, an adorable kitchenware shop and cooking school in Andersonville, with slow-cooking expert Stephanie O'Dea and professional chefs who work with Ninja. The event was designed to show off all that the Ninja Cooking System could do. I was astonished at the diversity of the dishes that they had prepared for us using only the Ninja Cooking System; not just soups and stews, but lots of quick meals like a frittata and salmon with couscous and even cupcakes!
The Ninja Cooking System has several features which distinguish it for your average slow-cooker. First, and most important to me, the Ninja has a stovetop setting, in addition to its slow-cooker setting, which allows me to brown meats and saute vegetables before slow-cooking them. This innovation allows me to develop deeper, richer flavors in my dishes and adds a nice crusty texture to meats. For me, this was the step that allowed me to think of slow-cooking as my kind of cooking.
But, as I learned, the Ninja Cooking System can do so much more than slow-cooking. It also is a steam-oven for quick, flavorful meals. One of the best dishes I tried at the Ninja blogger event was a salmon dish with arugula and sun-dried tomato couscous. They made the entire dish while I was there in 30 minutes. The couscous cooked in liquid on the bottom while the salmon sat above on a roasting rack, which comes with the Ninja Cooking System, and cooked to tender perfection.
You can even make desserts in the Ninja Cooking System using the included multi-purpose baking pan. The use of steam-baking — resulting from liquid that you place in the bottom of the pot – results in moist, flavorful baked goods and you can even use less fat than conventional baking. Desserts like flan and cheesecake come out unbelievably tender.
I have been playing with my Ninja Cooking System for weeks now and I can't believe I lived without it. It is absolutely a lifesaver for those busy days when Zuzu has swim practice at 6 pm and I have a meeting at 7 pm and I don't want my poor husband to eat a turkey sandwich for dinner. One of my favorite recipes from the Ninja Cooking System cookbook is a vegetarian red lentil soup with spinach and lemon. I have played around with the recipe to make it even more flavorful and reminiscent of Indian cuisine. It's quickly become a family favorite. And I love the idea that I can prepare it in the morning and sit down to a hot bowl of soup at dinnertime!
Slow-Cooker Red Lentil Soup with Lemon and Spinach
Adapted from Cooking Easier, Healthier and Better by Ninja
1 TB olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 carrots, peeled and diced
2 ribs celery, diced
1 tsp. each ground cumin and coriander
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. kosher salt
6 cups liquid such as water, vegetable or chicken broth
1 1/2 cups red lentils
Juice and zest of one lemon
10 oz. baby spinach
Pour oil into slow-cooker pot and set Stovetop setting to high. Add onions, carrots, garlic and celery to the pot and saute until tender, about five to seven minutes. Season with cumin, coriander, turmeric and salt. Saute vegetables for a few additional minutes until fragrant. Add lentils and toss to coat with oil. Pour in liquid and bring to a boil. Cover and turn to Slow-Cooker Low setting for 5-7 hours. Prior to serving, stir in lemon zest, lemon juice and baby spinach. If you prefer a thicker consistency, you can transfer half the soup to a blender or food processor and puree. Combine with remaining soup before serving.
Do you love your slow-cooker? What's your favorite way to use it?
Full disclosure time: I received a Ninja Cooking System unit free of charge for review purposes. I was not asked to write about the product nor was I compensated in any other way. All opinions expressed herein are entirely my own.