8 summer recipes you can make in a slow cooker

pinto beans in a slow cooker
CC BY 2.0 Flickr -- Pinto beans in a slow cooker

Slow cookers aren't just for winter. They can help you get dinner on the table efficiently -- and coolly -- even on hot summer days.

Think of a slow cooker, and you may associate it with wintertime stews, chilis, and braises; but the fact is, this timesaving device can help you get delicious and easy meals on the table even in peak summer heat. It's perfect for cooking ingredients without turning on the oven and heating up the kitchen. Keep reading for ideas on putting that slow cooker to use year-round.

1. Bean burritos: A slow cooker produces the tastiest, most tender yet intact beans ever. You don't need to pre-soak, only do a quick boil on the stove, then dump the whole thing into the slow cooker and turn on high for a few hours. Cook a batch of pinto or black beans (set it to low in the morning) and then sauce some peppers and onions when you get home. Add spices, mix in the beans, and voilà, burrito filling.

2. Ratatouille: Ratatouille is the quintessential taste of summer, a luscious vegetable-laden stew made with eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, and onions. Find a recipe you like it and let it simmer in the slow cooker. At the end of the day, stir in fresh chopped basil and serve over polenta (see below) or with crusty bread and a drizzle of olive oil.

3. Polenta: The secret to great, creamy polenta is a low, steady temperature, and that's precisely what a slow cooker does best. Mix the water, polenta, salt in cooker; set to high and stir occasionally for 4-6 hours. When it reaches desired consistency, set to warm until ready to serve. See full recipe here.

4. Tomato sauce: Instead of turning on the oven or standing over a simmering pot for an hour, try putting your tomato sauce ingredients in the slow cooker. Let it bubble gently all day; the longer, the better. Serve with minced fresh basil, with lentil meatballs, over polenta, with pasta and sautéed veggies, or on homemade grilled pizza.

5. Quinoa lettuce cups: Lettuce cups are a favorite light summer meal, but you can make them heartier by using protein-rich quinoa in the filling. Prep the quinoa in the slow cooker to make dinner go even faster at the end of the day. Use 2 cups of rinsed quinoa and 4 cups water. There's a yummy recipe in "The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook" by America's Test Kitchen that mixes the quinoa with tomatoes, cucumbers, shallot, olives, and feta, and serves in a lettuce cup.

6. Mexican caviar: This is a flavorful salad/dip that's excellent with tortilla chips. I use this recipe with half lentils, half black beans. Cook the lentils ahead of time in the slow cooker, using a ratio of 1 cup lentils to 2-1/2 cups water. Cooking time depends on the kind of lentils.

7. Vegetable soup: Soup is a great way to use up the abundant seasonal vegetables in your fridge. Chop an onion and add whatever you want -- broccoli, asparagus, leeks, potatoes -- to the slow cooker. Add seasonings and cover with stock. Let simmer on low all day, then blend and add some cream if desired.

8. Fruit compote: Have you gone berry-picking? Do you have an abundance of rhubarb in the garden? Wash and chop fruit and toss in the slow cooker with some sugar. Leave it for a few hours, and you'll have a delectable fruity topping for ice cream or breakfast yogurt parfaits with granola.

8 summer recipes you can make in a slow cooker
Slow cookers aren't just for winter. They can help you get dinner on the table efficiently -- and coolly -- even on hot summer days.

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