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Take the heat off with these 3 simple slow-cooker suppers

Go to a garage sale and you're bound to see an ugly, brown crock pot or two. Slow cookers have come a long way since the 70s. They are no longer brown, for one thing, and they are no longer just a way to bring beans to a potluck.

To the working parent, they are liberating. To the health-conscious carnivore, they are invaluable. So dust off that slow cooker you got as a wedding gift, and get ready for a crock pot revival!

In general, cooking with very lean meats can be tricky, to say the least. That's because the leaner cuts are much less forgiving and can turn out tough. But put them in a slow cooker, and in a few hours they're transformed into fork-tender, flavor-packed morsels.

Is it a miracle? Actually, it's quite scientific.

Slow, moist-heat cooking tenderizes meat by breaking down most of its connective tissue (muscle). The protein collagen is the prime component of connective tissue, and part of the collagen dissolves with slow, moist heat -- which makes the meat more tender. Some slow-cooker recipes call for searing the meat (pan-frying or broiling to brown the outside) before putting it in the slow cooker. This helps seal in internal juices while adding texture, flavor, and color.

Of course, the slow cooker isn't the only way of cooking food slowly. You can roast meats in the oven at a relatively low temperature for a couple of hours (for those who work outside the home, this is mainly a weekend option). But wouldn't it be wonderful to come home on a cold winter's night to a hot, savory entrée that's ready when you are?

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