By Josette Keelor
If you thought slow cookers were just for winter, think again. Woodstock cookbook author Robin Robertson uses slow cookers year-round, and not only for soups and stews either.
In her 22nd book -- her second about slow cookers -- Robertson informs readers how to cook everything from vegetable soup to brownies in a slow cooker.
"In the summer, I don't really want to turn the oven on, but I don't want to live on salad either," she said. So she uses the slow cooker as a miniature oven, she said.
"I make pizza and cake," she said. "It's like a steam heat, so really what it's doing is steam baking."
"Also, working from home, I don't have to hover over it," she said.
For brownies or casseroles, she perches a baking dish on top of a miniature spring form pan to give the dish height within the slow cooker. Spring form pans also help pizza keep their shape while cooking in a slow cooker, "which is kind of fun," she said.
Add water to the bottom of the slow cooker and cover with a clean kitchen towel under the slow cooker lid to prevent condensation, she said.
"Put it in there and it bakes," she said. "This to me is summer food."
Mix it up some more with fresh basil on your pizza or ripe strawberries in brownies, she said. She also makes poached pears and baked apples. "Anything fresh," she said.
"And condiments is another cool summer thing to make," she said. With a slow cooker, you don't have to worry about food burning, she added.
"I love slow cookers," she said. "They're really fun, and versatile."
A vegan since the late 1980s, Robertson now turns out several cookbooks a year.
"Fresh from the Vegan Slow Cooker" came out in September, and in February she published "Nut Butter Universe."
She expects "One Dish Vegan," a revised, updated version of "One Dish Vegetarian," to come out this September.
"It's 100 percent vegan now," she said. It also has new content based on what she's learned over the years.
"Fresh from the Vegan Slow Cooker" follows "Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker" by nearly nine years.
"I learned so much in the last 10 years, so this was so much fun to do."
She said the vegan versions of her previous vegetarian books are timely because of Americans' increasing interest in eliminating all animal products -- like meat, eggs and dairy -- from their diets.
"I definitely think vegan is the new vegetarian," Robertson said.
Her publisher Harvard Common Press recently promoted Robertson's book to those interested in trying out veganism for Earth Day on April 22, but those who missed out on Monday's earth-friendly events still have plenty of opportunities to try being vegan.
The Peace Advocacy Network currently is offering a free month-long Vegan Pledge, until May 20, said Leila Vaughan, group organizer for Northern Virginia.
Focused in Vienna, participants in the Fairfax County area benefit from mentors and weekly meetings, Vaughan said.
"The goal is to make veganism as easy and accessible as possible," she said by phone recently. After the month is over, she and other organizers want participants to consider sticking to the lifestyle. But even if they don't, so long as they use some of what they learned to better their health, "We still view it as progress," she said.
"We know that it's having a positive impact," Vaughan said.
The pledge, which focuses month-by-month attention to different areas of the country, plans to head to California in May.
Robertson said becoming vegan doesn't have to be difficult.
Those interested should "make lists of what they like to eat and what their favorite dishes are and find out how to make them vegan," she said.
"For example, [use] vegetable broth instead of chicken broth," she said.
"I use almond milk -- plain, unsweetened almond milk -- instead of dairy milk," she said. "You make wonderful creamy sauces with it."
Soy and rice milk as other options too, but she prefers the taste of almond milk -- "for sweet and savory cooking."
Instead of meat, she uses wheat gluten, beans, or textured soy protein like tofu.
"They're so hearty and meaty and delicious," Robertson said.
"Your taste buds get to learn about new flavors, new vegetables."
Because many people don't know how to cook tofu, she recommended first ordering vegan meals from Chinese or Thai restaurants. Raw tofu from the grocery store is not representative of cooked tofu, she said.
"Well, you wouldn't eat raw chicken, would you?" she said. "It's about learning to season ... like [with] anything else."
Experimentation is key. Choose chickpea salad instead of tuna, she offered, and use vegan mayonnaise made from cashews or soy instead of eggs.
She said folks might be surprised to learn some of their favorite foods are already vegan.
Previously a restaurant chef, Robertson said she was surprised when she learned to like beets. Her opinion changed when she tried roasting them.
"[Now] I roast all vegetables," she said. "To me that's the best way to cook vegetables."
Far from seeing her current meal options as stunted, she said she views the Standard American Diet as "just the same old stuff over and over again."
As a vegan, "you find it like an adventure."
"You have to like to cook," she said. Still, "It really isn't as hard as people think. Have a few favorites and take it from there."
Robin Robertson's book "Fresh from the Vegan Slow Cooker" is available at most bookstores and online. For more information, visit www.robinrobertson.com. For more information about the Peace Advocacy Network's Vegan Pledge, visit www.panveganpledge.org.
Summer Vegetable Soup
2 teaspoons olive oil (optional)
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
2 small red potatoes, scrubbed and diced
4 ounces green beans, ends tripped and cut into 1-inch pieces
6 cups vegetable broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups cooked cannellini or other white beans or 1 (15-ounce) can beans, rinsed and drained
1 small zucchini or yellow squash, diced
1 large ripe tomato, diced
3 cups chopped chard, kale or spinach
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon minced fresh dill or tarragon (optional)
1. For the best flavor, heat oil in a medium-sized skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until softened, about five minutes. Add the garlic and cook for one minute longer. Alternatively, omit the oil and sauté ingredients in a few tablespoons of water or combine them in a microwave-safe bowl with a little water, cover and microwave for two minutes.
2. Transfer the onion mixture to the slow cooker. Add the carrots, celery, potatoes, green beans and broth. Season to taste with salt and pepper and cook on low for five hours.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or email@example.com