Give yourself a break and let the slow cooker go to work

It's a busy cook's dream: dinner that makes itself. With a slow cooker, it's a reality. Toss together a few flavorful ingredients, push a button, and find a comforting meal ready at supper time.

Quick tips for cooking slowly:

Tough, cheap cuts are great for the slow cooker. To convert any favorite stew recipe, reduce the liquid called for by half -- slow cookers trap moisture, providing plenty of sauce.

Browning your vegetables and meat isn't always necessary before adding them to the slow cooker, but we do like to brown chicken (it deepens flavor and improves the skin's texture).

For best results, your slow cooker should be at least halfway but no more than two-thirds full when you start cooking. This will prevent overcooking and overflowing.

Need even more time than a recipe allows? Set up your ingredients in the slow cooker, cover and refrigerate overnight. Chilling the slow cooker and ingredients buys 1 to 1 1/2 hours more cooking time.

You may be tempted to peek, but don't lift that lid too often. Releasing the heat will increase cooking time by about 15 minutes.

Everyday Food magazine offers quick, healthy solutions for everyday meals -- from the kitchens of Martha Stewart Living. For more recipes and additional tips, visit

Cajun stew

3/4 pound andouille or kielbasa, sliced into 1/2-inch-thick rounds

1 red onion, sliced into wedges

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped

1 red or green bell pepper, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Coarse salt

1/2 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 cups frozen cut okra (from an 8-ounce package), thawed

In a 5- or 6-quart slow cooker, place sausage, onion, garlic, celery and bell pepper. Sprinkle with flour and toss to coat. Add tomatoes and their liquid, 1/2 cup water, and cayenne; season with salt. Cover and cook until vegetables are tender, 3 1/2 hours on high (or 7 hours on low). Add shrimp and okra, cover, and cook until shrimp are opaque throughout, about 30 minutes (or 1 hour on low).

Nutritional information per serving: 225 calories, 11 grams fat (5 grams saturated fat), 19 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 44 percent of calories from fat.

Sweet-and-spicy chicken

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon coarse salt

1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

4 chicken leg quarters (2 1/2 pounds total)

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, cut into 1/2-inch wedges (root end left intact)

3 garlic cloves, minced

3-inch piece peeled fresh ginger, sliced into rounds

1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes

1/2 cup raisins

1. In a large zip-top bag, combine cumin, cinnamon, salt and pepper; add chicken and toss to coat. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high. Cook chicken, skin side down, until golden, about 4 minutes; flip and cook 2 minutes.

2. In a 5- or 6-quart slow cooker, place onion, garlic and ginger. Add chicken, skin side up, then top with tomatoes and their liquid and raisins. Cover and cook on high until chicken is tender, 3 1/2 hours (or 6 hours on low).

Nutritional information per serving, based on 4: 310 calories, 15 grams fat (4 grams saturated fat), 25 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 44 percent of calories from fat.

Corned beef and cabbage

2 celery stalks, cut into 3-inch pieces

3 carrots, cut into 3-inch pieces

1 small yellow onion, cut into 1-inch wedges (root end left intact)

1/2 pound small potatoes, halved if large

6 sprigs thyme

1 corned beef brisket (about 3 pounds), plus pickling spice packet or 1 tablespoon pickling spice

1/2 head savoy cabbage, cut into 1 1/2-inch wedges

Grainy mustard, for serving

In a 5- or 6-quart slow cooker, place celery, carrots, onion, potatoes and thyme. Place corned beef, fat side up, on top of vegetables and sprinkle with pickling spice; add enough water to almost cover meat (4 to 6 cups). Cover and cook on high until corned beef is tender, 4 1/4 hours (or 8 1/2 hours on low). Arrange cabbage over corned beef, cover, and continue cooking until cabbage is tender, about 45 minutes (or 1 1/2 hours on low). Thinly slice corned beef against the grain and serve with vegetables, cooking liquid and grainy mustard.

Nutritional information per serving: 650 calories, 43 grams fat (14 grams saturated fat), 45 grams protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams fiber, 60 percent of calories from fat.

Beef ragu

1 medium yellow onion, diced small

3 garlic cloves, minced

6 tablespoons tomato paste

3 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano leaves (or 3 teaspoons dried)

1 beef chuck roast (4 pounds), halved

Coarse salt and ground pepper

1 to 2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar

In a 5- or 6-quart slow cooker, combine onion, garlic, tomato paste and oregano. Season roast with salt and pepper and place on top of onion mixture. Add 2 cups water, cover and cook on high until meat is tender and can easily be pulled apart with a fork, about 4 1/2 hours (or 9 hours on low). Let cool 10 minutes, then shred meat in slow cooker with 2 forks and stir in vinegar to taste.

Nutritional information per serving: 528 calories, 32 grams fat (13 grams saturated fat), 51 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 55 percent of calories from fat.