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I love surprising my friends and family with the unusual things I make in my slow cooker. You may know this device by its popular brand name, “Crock Pot.” While currently a staple appliance used at least once a week in my meal preparation, it hasn’t always been a favorite.

When I was growing up, my brother and I used to exchange a worried glance when my mom pulled out her harvest gold Crock Pot. It meant one of two meals we as kids dreaded being served for dinner: stringy pot roast or beef stew. When I graduated from college and started cooking for myself, I had no desire to own a slow cooker. In the early 2000’s, my mother-in-law discovered I did not have this appliance and bought me one for my birthday. The large box sat in my dining room for several weeks until I was motivated to open it.

That motivation came from social media where I learned of two ladies from Texas who called themselves the “Crockin’ Girls” and posted creative, innovative slow cooker recipes. These ladies were fixing meals their entire family could eat, including their young children. Their recipes were not your typical soups, stews and roasts. They were cooking things like chicken and other lean meats, breakfast casseroles, and their wildly popular dessert, chocolate lava cake. While they have since disappeared from the social media spotlight to focus on their families, their two cookbooks are still dog-eared favorites in my kitchen today.

Once I started cooking the Crockin’ Girls’ recipes, I experimented with converting my own oven-based favorites to the slow cooker. I used the rule that meals which take 15-30 minutes in the oven go into the slow cooker for 2 hours on high or 4 hours on low. Anything cooked in an oven 30-60 minutes goes in the slow cooker 3 hours on high or 6 hours on low. Of course, if you are converting a recipe for the first time, check on it frequently to get the cook time perfected.

A slow cooker is a great tool for keeping dinner warm when members of your family come home at different times. I also love that you don’t have to defrost ingredients before placing them in a slow cooker. Toss in frozen meats or vegetables and just extend the cook time one hour.

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I particularly enjoy channeling my inner chemist by experimenting with creating different concoctions in a slow cooker. I consider it a challenge to make things that most people would never think could be cooked in one.

Perhaps the most unusual meal I’ve cooked in a Crock Pot is the Chicago deep dish pizza recipe I am sharing here. It is super easy and a family favorite. The key is a great crust. I’ll let you in on this secret: if you ask at the Kroger deli, they have excellent frozen pre-made pizza dough stored in the back freezer that they sell in individual bags. This pizza recipe, which has the toppings and cheese next to the crust and sauce on top, tastes just like the traditional version we sampled in Chicago several years ago.

I began my slow cooker experimentation in earnest when my oldest was in elementary school. One of my daughter’s friends, who frequented our home regularly, woke up after a sleepover at our house to an egg breakfast casserole in one slow cooker and pumpkin steel cut oats in another. This prompted her to ask, “Does your mom only know how to cook in Crock Pots?”

I took my slow cooker into my daughter’s elementary school quite often at her request. She loved to tell the teacher how I was experimenting with baking bread and desserts in the Crock Pot. The teacher was always interested to learn which of our recipe experiments worked out and which did not. I brought a Crock Pot hot dip for the classroom’s Halloween party and, later, this blackberry cobbler recipe for my little one’s birthday. After one of these events, I remember her saying “Mom, my teacher said you and your crazy Crock Pot ideas are welcome in her class anytime.” I don’t think that was exactly what the teacher said, but I took it as a compliment.

Try making something unexpected in your slow cooker this week. I’d love to hear what you create!

Sarah Long is the author of the cookbook “College Cooking 101: Fast Food Without a Kitchen.” You can contact her at SarahHLongAuthor@gmail.com and follow her on social media on facebook @SarahHLongAuthor, Instagram @CollegeCooking101, and Twitter @SarahHLong1.

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