Our favorite way to make cozy winter foods is by braising-slowly cooking meats or vegetables in liquid until they're very tender. But since long cooking requires regular attention, it's not a great solution for busy cooks. Happily, slow-cookers are back in vogue, many with handy programmable features (see "Crock Talk," below). So give them another look; they make slow cooking seem downright speedy.
A little like a Mexican sloppy Joe, this juicy dish is best sandwiched in crusty French rolls and topped with shredded cabbage, red onion, sliced tomato, cilantro, and sour cream.
This dish is rich in nuts and spices and sweetened with currants. To make it in advance, just cook the spices and chop the vegetables the night before. Refrigerate in the crock overnight, then start it in the morning. Serve with couscous and a dollop of plain yogurt.
The traditional Italian method used for this dish makes a rather lumpy, toffee-colored sauce, but it is one of the most succulent ways to cook pork. You'll need to uncover the cooker for the last three hours, so plan ahead. Serve with polenta and a green salad.
New features make today's slow-cookers incredibly convenient.
Many models, such as this 6-quart Smart-Pot Programmable Slow Cooker by Rival ($50; www.crockpot.com or 800/610-6665), allow you to set the cooker on low or high heat for 4 to 10 hours. When time's up, the cooker automatically switches to the warm setting - perfect if you're going to be away from the kitchen all day.
Others, such as the Farberware FSC600 ($40; www.esalton.com or 888/ 881-8101), lack the programming feature but have a setting that starts cooking -on high heat, then automatically switches to low to prevent overcooking.
We recommend buying a slow-cooker with a 6-quart capacity, which allows you to cook larger cuts of meat. All the recipes here were tested on 5- and 6-quart models.