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Ready to try a little 'retro' cooking? I think you are going to like it: Crock-Pots - all the rage 30 years ago - are back in fashion.

Some of you will deserve a pat on the back in recognition for showing your hip-ness by using your Crock-Pot all these years.

Then there are us closet Crock-Pot users. I bought my Crock-Pot five or six years ago to keep soup hot during a teacher appreciation lunch. I haven't used it for much else since, except to make chicken stock.

I'll admit I can be a food snob. I didn't think a Crock-Pot could produce the type of food I enjoyed serving. My enlightenment began with an e-mail telling me that the Crock-Pot of today was not the same ol' Crock-Pot of yesteryear.

'It's a convenient way for even the busiest among us to get a healthy, homemade meal on the table,' the e-mail read. 'And, the slow cooker experts at Crock-Pot have developed new products that make it even easier with innovative features like portability, auto-cook settings, and versatile stoneware.

My interest was piqued; I surely had been underutilizing my Crock-Pot. I was eager to test drive a newer model.

Some of the improvements include:

n The removable stoneware pot allows you to brown meats and sauté vegetables directly on your stovetop.

n Units may come with a heat probe thermometer, which registers when the meat reaches the correct temperature, and automatically adjusts the temperature to avoiding overcooking.

n Programming that is pre-set to cook meals perfectly at the touch of a button. Simply set the programming according to the type of dish you are cooking and it'll cook at the perfect temperature and time to ensure the best results every time, just like having a private chef do it for you.

You can cook breakfast in a Crock-Pot, lasagna and crème brulee! Why, you can even bake a cake in a Crock-Pot!

To test the Crock-Pot, I wanted to see if I could achieve the same appearance and flavors that I would using traditional cooking methods.

The Crock-Pot did a great job.

I followed Crock-Pot's Beef Bourguignon recipe and tossed a halved acorn squash on top. The stoneware browns meat and sautés vegetables beautifully. The meal was met with rave reviews - and, while it was cooking I got to fold laundry or do a few other household chores.

Amy Golino, Crock-Pot Culinary Analyst and slow cooking expert, said that Crock-Pots are the fastest growing segment of the appliance industry today.

'With time being a family's most precious commodity, use of a Crock-Pot allows them to get a jumpstart on meal preparation, hold the meal for family members eating later and multitask,' said Amy.

She likes to make soup stock while she sleeps and then use the stock to prepare soup during the day. She also likes to put breakfast cereal on when she goes to bed, so its ready to eat when the kids get up in the morning.

Who would have thought? Thanks, Amy, for inspiring us to use our Crock-Pots for more than the obvious.

Crock-Pots definitely can make life easier for busy families. They produce wonderful results and the improvements allow you to create upscale gourmet meals as well as more casual comfort food.

Get hip! Try this retro cooking method and with the time you save, get to the gym or wrap a gift or two!

Bon Appetite! Eat Locally!

Fruity Granola Oatmeal

A heartwarming way to start the day.

Nonstick cooking spray or butter for coating stoneware

1 ¼ cups old fashioned oats (not quick cooking)

1 cup plain, cinnamon or apple granola

2 cups milk, plus more if desired for serving

1 cup water

¼ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

¼ cup apples, peeled, cored and chopped into 1 inch cubes

¼ cup pears, peeled, cored and chopped into 1 inch cubes

¼ cup walnuts, toasted

¼ cup maple syrup or brown sugar (optional)

Grease stoneware bowl with cooking spray or butter.

Add oats, granola, milk, water, salt, cinnamon, and fruit to stoneware. Gently stir ingredients.

Place cover on stoneware. Cook on low for 7 to 8 hours or high for 2 to 3 hours.

On a large baking sheet, toast walnuts on top rack of the broiler for about 4 minutes. Turn frequently.

Mix walnuts into stoneware.

Spoon oatmeal into individual bowls and serve hot. Pass additional milk, maple syrup or brown sugar, if desired.

Jarden Customer Solutions, Crock-Pot, 2006

Crème Brulee

Use a 6 to 7 quart Crock-Pot, makes 5 servings

5 egg yolks

2 cups heavy cream

1 vanilla bean, split down the center

½ cup sugar

¼ cup raw sugar

Place five 2/3 cup ramekins or custard cups (2 ¾ inches wide by 1 ¾ inches high) inside stoneware. Pour water around ramekins so that water comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Remove ramekins and prepare custard.

Whisk the egg yolks briefly, set aside. Place the cream, vanilla bean and sugar in a small saucepan set over medium heat. Stir until mixture begins to boil. Remove from heat and let cool, allowing vanilla bean to steep in the cream.

When cool, remove bean, scraping out the seeds into the mixture.

Very slowly, pour into the egg yolks, whisking well. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve.

Pour the mixture into the ramekins and place in stoneware. Cover and turn slow cooker to High for 1 to 2 hours, or until custard is set but centers are still soft and jiggly.

Carefully remove from stoneware, let cool and refrigerate until ready to serve. Spread tops of each custard generously with raw sugar and brulee with a torch, gradually melting and browning the sugar in quick small circles.

Recipe courtesy of Amy Golino, Jarden Consumer Solutions.

Randall welcomes your food questions and research suggestions. She can be reached at 503-635-8811 or by e-mail at [email protected] .

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