Genius advice from a slow-cooker pro

Wendell Brock / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution /

Standing beside the kitchen counter of her Dunwoody, Ga., home, author Cynthia Graubart lifts two plastic bags from a slow cooker, an appliance with which she has had a long-simmering on-again, off-again affair.

First there was the avocado green Rival brand Crock-Pot that she pilfered from her mother to take to college in the early '80s, only to discover that it made too much food and was a pain to clean. Then came the 6-quart cooker she used to make dinners for her husband and two children. After her son and daughter left for college, the empty nester didn't banish the slow cooker, but she often found she had too many leftovers.

Behold the 3 1/2-quart slow cooker, the one from which Graubart is now removing a pair of pot roasts glistening in gravy. This smaller device was the inspiration for her new book, “Slow Cooking for Two: Basics, Techniques, Recipes” (Gibbs Smith, $19.99) — which happened to hit stores just as she was savoring the 2013 James Beard Award she won for “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking” (Gibbs Smith, $45), co-authored with her longtime friend and collaborator Nathalie Dupree.

After “Mastering,” which clocked in at 6 pounds, 722 pages, “Slow Cooking” is a return to simplicity and economy. But with 100 recipes for the likes of Cornish Hen in Port Wine and Fig Preserves, Smoky Chipotle Butternut Squash Soup and Mushroom Risotto, there is no shortage of flavor and sophistication.

Though the slow cooker has long been the province of the earthy cuisine that transpires when stews and soups are left to simmer gently day and night, Graubart imbues her pot with surprising versatility. While you expect to find recipes for turkey chili, hot cheese dip and chocolate fondue in a book of slow cookery (and indeed, they are here), Graubart gives us many ingenious and inventive applications.

She even devises a way for the slow cooker to work like an oven.

In her magic pot, banana bread is “baked” in mini loaf pans perched on a cookie cutter or Mason jar ring. Ramekins of vanilla custard are firmed in a bain-marie. Salmon is steamed in foil. Meatloaf is hoisted out of the pot in a foil “sling.” Even crunchy granola gets slow-cooker treatment.

“It's the best device for cooking something unattended, and that's a really liberating thing,” says Graubart, who rediscovered the slow cooker while working on the voluminous “Mastering.” But the family-size recipes were often too much for her and her husband, Cliff. So she scaled them back for two (and the occasional dinner guest). For larger gatherings, many of her recipes can easily be doubled. (However, because slow cookers retain so much moisture, she generally suggests increasing the liquid by half when cooking twice as much.) As a person who likes to save time, Graubart also came up with a genius plan for cooking two meals at once.

For her so-called “double dinners,” she uses plastic slow-cooker liners (available in the grocery-store aisle alongside the sandwich bags and tinfoil) to make two dishes simultaneously. Bottom round roasts, flank steaks, pot roasts and pork tenderloins: All are sliced in half, placed in separate liners with the remaining ingredients and cooked in the same pot. One dish is meant to be eaten at once, the other saved for later.

This brings us back to the plastic bags that Graubart is gingerly untucking from her slow cooker, taking care not to spill the liquid.

Inside Liner No. 1 is Lime Pot Roast, a variation of Dupree's now classic lemon-lime pot roast, which here calls for lime zest and juice, tomatoes, garlic and not much else. Inside Liner No. 2: Vinegar-Braised Pot Roast, seasoned with balsamic, rosemary and strong coffee.

I take a bite. Both are scrumptious.

While it's smart to freeze a meal for later, imagine putting both these gorgeous pot roasts out for company. I plan to do just that, using a ginormous, three-sectioned platter that once belonged to my mother — with mashed potatoes in the middle. Add a salad or sauteed greens, and I'm done.

Since the dinners are cooked in separate bags, you may also mix and match proteins: perhaps a roast in one liner, a tenderloin in another. The double-dinner concept has been so well received that it spawned a sequel: Graubart is now finishing up “Slow Cooking for Two: Double Dinners,” due out from Gibbs Smith in the spring.

Meanwhile, I drool to think what I'll fix next from her book. Will it be Peanut Chicken, Rosemary Lamb and Tomato Stew, or Chocolate Cake? Since slow cookers are handy in places without proper stoves, I might take my baby on the road. RV cooking, anyone? “My sister went to Wyoming this summer,” Graubart says. “She packed her slow cooker and the book, and she said coming in from hiking and having the meal ready was fantastic.” Perhaps she oughta name that slow cooker Old Faithful.