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I’ve never been much of a summer girl. I like going to the beach, wearing flip flops, and the smell of sunscreen, but the heat always gets me (plus, growing up in New England, I’m a sucker for fall). As a home cook, I’m torn when it comes to summer cooking. The season is bursting with fresh, readily available ingredients, but trying to cook a feast indoors in the midst of the summer heat is dreadful — not to mention wanting to spend time outside in the beautiful weather instead of stuck in my kitchen. And ever since a traumatic barbecue incident which ended with my father having to hose down the grill (shrimp and asparagus included), my outlets for summer cooking are limited. That’s why I turn to one of my most trusted kitchen tools when the summer heat blazes: my slow cooker.

Yes, the appliance you might think is only good for pot roasts or hearty cold-weather stews is a lifesaver during the summer. Tucked away in the corner of my kitchen counter, it cooks for hours on its own without me having to hover over a burning flame or open a hot oven. It also keeps me safely away from the grill and allows me the freedom to enjoy the sunshine without having to be tied to my kitchen.

Aside from making great soups, slow cookers are also the ultimate braising machine, making tough cuts of meat into fork tender morsels. During the summer, I like to slow-cook a variety of meats: flank steak, pork, chicken, and even ribs. Slow-cooked meat becomes unbelievably tender, and also lends itself to summery shredded meat dishes like pulled pork sandwiches, burritos, or tacos — all of which happen to be among my favorite meals. I also like to experiment with different braising liquids — such as simple spiced stocks, wine, citrus juices, salsa — and finish the braise with some fresh summer herbs for serious flavor. The abundance of ingredients, either with new recipes or by swapping out canned ingredients in old favorites, can really lead to endless possibilities for your slow cooker. Especially when you consider that you can also use the trusty appliance to make dessert.

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Yes, you can even make dessert, my favorite part of the meal, in a slow cooker. Cookies, cakes, and pies might be out of the question, but again, with a little creativity, making dessert in a slow cooker is possible. Enter slow cooker cheesecake. Since cheesecakes require gentle heat, which is conventionally accomplished through a low oven temperature and a hot water bath, it makes sense that the slow cooker would make the ultimate cheesecake-making machine. You simply prepare the cheesecake and set the pan in a half-inch or so of water in the slow cooker itself. Covered and (the hard part!) left completely undisturbed, the cheesecake slowly and gently cooks for a few hours until it is perfectly set. Slow-cooking a cheesecake will also prevent it from cracking due to the extremely gentle heat and moist environment. Never thought you could make a dessert in a slow cooker, huh?

I’ve included an entire summer slow cooker spread below. From spicy and sweet pineapple citrus flank steak to my version of Spanish rice, and of course, slow cooker cheesecake topped with lemony berry sauce, these recipes reveal the possibilities of using a slow cooker during the summer months. So dust off your slow cooker, save yourself from the unbearable heat of the kitchen, and make time to actually enjoy the weather.

Pineapple Citrus Flank Steak

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Ingredients

2 pounds flank steak
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or less if desired)
2 teaspoons salt
1 large onion, sliced in strips
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
1 cup pineapple, chopped
1 orange
2 limes

Instructions

In a small bowl, mix the cumin, paprika, cayenne, and salt. Rub this mixture all over both sides of the flank steak. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Quickly sear the steak on both sides, removing it when both the sides are just brown. This step isn’t meant to cook the steak, just to sear a crust and seal in the spices.

In the bowl of your slow cooker, add the onions, garlic, peppercorns, and pineapple. Cut the citrus in half and add the juice into the slow cooker, as well as the remaining whole fruit. Place the seared flank steak on top of the onion mix. Cook on low setting for 10 hours or until flank steak is cooked through and tears with a fork. Serve shredded over rice, the braised onions, or in a tortilla.

Serves 4

Spanish Rice

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As the summer progresses and your garden (or farmers’ market) blooms, consider swapping out the canned tomatoes and chiles for fresh. Either way, this rice makes an excellent summer side or light meal.

Ingredients

1 cup long grain white rice
1 can (8 ounces) diced green chiles
1 cup diced tomatoes
1 cup chicken stock
1 whole red and green pepper, diced
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
¼ cup chopped cilantro

Instructions

Spray the bowl of the slow cooker with non-stick spray. Then combine rice, chiles, tomatoes, stock, peppers, bay leaf, and salt in the bowl of your slow cooker. Cook for 2 hours on low or until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender. Finish with butter and fresh cilantro and serve.

Serves 4

Slow Cooker Sour Cream Cheesecake with Berry Sauce

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This cheesecake is much lighter than most others. Being less dense, combined with a sauce of fresh summer berries and lemon juice makes this dessert perfect for summer without having to slave over a hot oven. Since I have a smaller slow cooker, I made individual cheesecakes in small ramekins, placed directly into the water bath. If you have a larger cooker (6- to 7-quart), you could also make a single cake in a 6-inch springform pan, rested on a rack inside the cooker’s compartment.

Ingredients

For the cheesecake:
¾ cup graham cracker crumbs
2½ tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
⅔ cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
Pinch of salt
12 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon flour
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup sour cream

For the sauce:
2 cups mixed berries (strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries)
¼ cup sugar
Juice from ½ lemon

Instructions

Before starting the cheesecake, in a small bowl, combine the berries for the sauce with the sugar. Let the mixture sit for at least 1 hour, or until the berries have released some of their juice.

In a medium bowl, mix the graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, cinnamon, salt, and the 1 tablespoon of sugar until evenly moist. Press the crumbs over the bottom and 1 inch up the side of .

Using a mixer, beat the cream cheese, flour, the remaining ⅔ cup of sugar, and ¼ teaspoon of salt at medium-high speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the eggs and the almond extract, then beat at medium speed until blended. Add the sour cream and beat until smooth. Pour the batter into the ramekins.

Fill slow cooker with ½ inch of water. Place the cheesecakes gently into the water without submerging completely. Cover the slow cooker with three layers of paper towels and the lid. Turn the cooker to high and allow the cheesecake to cook for 2 hours undisturbed (no peeking!). Turn off the heat and let stand until the slow cooker has cooled.

While the cheesecake cooks, combine berry and sugar mixture with lemon juice in a small saucepan and cook on low for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. For a chunkier sauce, stir very carefully as to not crush the berries. Add more sugar or lemon juice to taste, if desired. Let cool before serving.

Remove the lid and the paper towels and transfer the cheesecake to a rack to cool to room temperature. Cover the cheesecake and refrigerate until chilled, at least 4 hours.

Heat a sharp, thin-bladed knife under hot water; dry the knife. Carefully run the knife around the edge of the cheesecake(s) to release. Top with berry sauce and freshly grated lemon zest and serve.

Serves 6

Photos by Rachel Wisniewski

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