JOPLIN, Mo. —
There's something soul-crushing about standing in a hot kitchen on a summer afternoon, watching through the windows as my family plays outside. They dash through the sprinkler, jump in the pool and have water fights while I sweat over the stovetop.
But if I throw in the towel and go play with them as my heart desires, we'll be left scrounging for leftovers or ordering takeout. Boring and expensive.
Thankfully, today's families have a rescuer on playful summer afternoons: the slow cooker.
I have to admit that I don't usually love the slow cooker. In the past, it's led me to dissatisfying textures and irritating preparations.
But with time comes wisdom, and with practice comes success. Here are some of my favorite slow-cooker recipes, chosen to help the beleaguered parents of summertime step away from the steamy kitchen and into the refreshing waters of summer.
Barbecue pork sandwiches: There are hundreds of ways you can make your own sauce for this sandwich, but I find the simplest method to be delicious and perfect for not working too hard on a summer afternoon.
Place a 2-pound pork roast in the slow cooker, along with 1Ú4 cup water or broth. Cook on high for 4 to 5 hours. Shred pork and return to juices. Mix 3Ú4 cup (more or less to taste) of store-bought barbecue sauce into the shredded pork. Serve on buns with your choice of toppings.
Spicy chicken tacos: Besides for this particular recipe, it's a good idea to cook a large batch of chicken in the slow cooker at the beginning of the week. You can use the shredded or chopped chicken for salads, casseroles and soups all week long with minimal effort.
Place 4 to 6 chicken breasts in the slow cooker, along with 1Ú4 cup water or broth. Sprinkle cumin, chili powder and garlic powder on chicken. Cook on low for 4 to 5 hours. Shred chicken, then stir remaining juices back into the chicken to fully distribute and absorb the flavor.
Fill tortillas with chicken, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and avocados for a quick, light summer meal.
Chicken and bean burrito bowls: Place 3 to 4 chicken breasts in a slow cooker and top with 1 jar (16 ounces) of salsa. Add 2 cans of drained, rinsed beans, such as pinto or black beans. Cook on low for 4 to 5 hours. Remove chicken for shredding, and place it back into the slow cooker to combine with salsa and beans. Serve in bowls topped with sour cream and shredded lettuce.
Macaroni and cheese: Pour 3 cups cooked macaroni into the slow cooker (a bit undercooked is best), plus 2 cups evaporated milk, 2 tablespoons butter, 3 cups shredded cheddar cheese and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook on high for 2 hours, stirring every hour, until tender.
Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://this heavenlylife.blogspot.com.