Monday, November 14, 2011

Under Pressure But Not Freaking Out

This story on using a pressure cooker ran on Patch yesterday morning. Learning to use a pressure cooker with the cooking teacher Arlene Ward was one of the most pleasant learning experiences I've ever had---after I'd gotten over my initial anxiety about blowing the kitchen up. If you have the energy to make a comment, or offer ideas on other foods to make in the pressure cooker, please go to Patch and leave a comment.

Next week, I'll be writing about Thanksgiving, so if you have ay recipes or observations (funny and otherwise) you want to share, please let me know. Thank you!

Sunday Night Supper: Under Pressure

Once you get over the anxiety of using it, a pressure cooker opens a world of quick cooking possibilities and gives new meaning to the term, "PC."

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My friend Terri is a generous and terrific cook. When she asks if you want to have lunch, she means, "Do you want to come to my house, and I will make mushroom soup with three different kinds of mushrooms and the most delicious salad you've ever tasted with homemade lemon dressing, and afterward I will send you home with all the recipes?" So last March, when she asked me if I wanted to take a pressure cooking class at her house in Livingston, I knew at a minimum I'd be well fed and drive home with a sheaf of new recipes.

The class was taught by Arlene Ward, a lovely woman with a fierce attention to detail and a delightful sense of humor. Ward, 77, is co-author with Rick Rogers of Pressure Cooking For Everyone ($13.45 on Amazon) and an expert on using the pressure cooker in unexpected ways. Ward ran a cooking school and store in Wayne called Adventures in Cooking for more than 20 years, until a huge flood forced her to close the business in 2009. Since then, she has taught cooking classes at Kings, Chef Central and privately in people's homes.

With a large group of women, including my neighbor Laura K., I sat in Ward's class at Terri's house for three hours, took notes, ate some excellent food, then went home and ordered a Kuhn Rikon 5 quart pressure cooker ($199 from Amazon; also available at Cookware & More and Chef Central. Bed Bath & Beyond carries other brands.) When the pressure cooker arrived, I put it on top of the stove.

There is something energizing about a new appliance. Oh, the things that you'll make! But that energy can work against you if you don't actually use the thing. The pressure cooker was big. As I read the owner's manual, I became nervous. The physics of it scared me. The pressure builds up, the little black button on top (aka the safety valve) pops up and if there is too much pressure, the pot will hiss, signaling you need to lower the flame or push down the valve so it can let off some steam. Who needed an appliance that hissed? I had also heard stories from years ago of pressure cookers blowing up.

Meanwhile, Terri, Laura K. and my other PC-loving friends got busy making risotto, stews, soups, meatballs, brisket, turkey breast, chicken, butternut squash gratin, bread pudding, Bolognese sauce, apple sauce and cheese cake in their pressure cookers.

I made nothing. I didn't even wash the pressure cooker to get it ready. I did buy Ward's book and read through the recipes. The recipes looked delicious and none of them looked hard. Still, I was intimidated. What if I opened the pot too soon and instead of getting a mini facial, got burned by the steam? After a few weeks of staring at the pressure cooker on top of the stove, I opened our big oven, put the pressure cooker inside and closed the door.

Time went by. Every so often, Terri would ask, "Have you used the pressure cooker?" I'd shake my head no. "It's so easy!" she'd say and then describe the great ropa vieja she'd just made. Laura K. would rave about how much her kids liked the turkey breast and pea soup she'd cooked in the PC. "I'm going to come over and help you," they both offered. I was too embarrassed to say, "Really? When?"

So a few weeks ago, when Terri said that Arlene was coming back to Essex County to teach another class in her kitchen, I signed up and tried not to think of it as remedial.

The class was terrific and inspiring, Arlene made barbecue chicken, corn pudding and a cauliflower and mushroom gratin in the pressure cooker. Outside the pressure cooker, she whipped up a farfalle in creamy vodka sauce, a super easy, gluten-free, chocolate pot of cream and a salad made with vanilla vinaigrette. She made a plain, roast chicken in the oven and showed us how to carve it properly. My friend Lora, who is kind of a genius and was also re-taking the class, demonstrated how to place the gasket in the lid and watch the valve pop up, then suggested we film Arlene in action so we didn't forget what to do (see videos.) I went home feeling slightly more confident.

The next morning, I followed Ward's suggestion: I took a practice run. I washed out the pot, poured in two cups of hot water, locked the lid in place and brought it to a boil over high heat. After 10 minutes, I turned off the burner, pressed down the valve to release the steam through the vent, tilted the lid of the pot away from me, and dumped the water down the sink. I'd used the pressure cooker to heat up some water. Whoopee! At least now I was confident enough to make risotto and barbecue chicken for dinner.

There is nothing more delicious and satisfying than a rich, creamy risotto, especially on a cold night after daylight savings time kicks in and the days get dark so early. But risotto requires a lot of standing and stirring. If you've had a long day, you'll probably skip it. The great news is the pressure cooker makes the risotto beautifully without any standing and stirring and in half the time. I was doing a little mental victory lap in my kitchen when I saw how easy and fast it was to make that risotto. (Note: You do have to stay in the kitchen when the pressure cooker is on.)

My only mistake was adding one teaspoon of dried rosemary. Ward's recipe called for two teaspoons of fresh rosemary. That's the usual rule of thumb when using dried versus fresh herbs. But as Ward points out in her book, "Pressure cooking intensifies flavors, so about half the amount of dried herbs, spices and salt are needed than in traditional cooking methods." I had read those words and then promptly forgotten them. But you shouldn't. Use your dried herbs sparingly when using a pressure cooker.

The barbecue chicken was a snap to make and went down well with everyone who was speaking to me. My husband went out of his way to say how good it was, and my younger son had seconds. (My older son was annoyed that I had yelled at him for missing the bus that morning so ate his quickly and refused comment.)

Emboldened, I decided to make boeuf bourguignon (beef stew in red wine with bacon, onions and mushrooms) the next night. Boeuf bourguignon is one of those classic French dishes that tastes delicious and takes forever. Recipes from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Craig Claiborne's The New York Times Cookbook are easy enough to follow, but they'll have you cooking for three to four hours. Not tonight, love. The boeuf bourguignon recipe in Ward's book promised that it only needed twenty minutes at high pressure. That was nothing! I started making a list of ingredients when Laura K. called.

"The risotto and barbecue chicken turned out great!" I crowed. "I'm going to make beef bourguignon tonight and it's only going to take twenty minutes!"

Laura K. chortled. "It's not going to take twenty minutes," she said. "Whenever you cook big hunks of meat, it takes the pressure cooker a long time to get up to pressure." Oh.

At 4:50 p.m., I started making dinner. My kids were hungry; I was determined to be done quickly. Ward's recipe called for one cup of hearty red wine, such as a Zinfandel. Craig Claiborne recommended a Burgundy, Julia Child recommended everything but what we had, which was cabernet sauvignon. At 5:20, I opened the bottle.

That's when Laura K. knocked on the back door. "You're opening wine?"

"It's for the beef!' (Really, it was.)

She walked in with her dog. "Do you want to go for a walk?"

"I can't, I'm cooking!" I looked at her. She's a sophisticated red wine drinker. I decided to do the neighborly thing and offer her a glass.

"It's kind of early," she said. I shrugged, took out two wine glasses and poured. We toasted and drank. What fun! Laura K. peered at the three pounds of meat (beef bottom round, $4.49/pound at Kings), cut into 1.5-inch chunks. "You're going to do those in batches," she said. She was right. I browned three batches in the pressure cooker, then added the mushrooms, shallots and garlic.

Our dogs wandered around, hoping something tasty would drop. Eventually, Laura K. left to walk her dog. I poured myself another glass of wine, slid the lid on the pot and turned up the pressure. The pot took a few minutes to reach high pressure and start to hiss. This time I wasn't afraid; I pressed down on the valve with a long wooden spoon, as Ward had advised, and let out some steam. By 6:10, the boeuf bourguignon was done. Voila!

I tasted the sauce. It was flat. Something was missing. The wine! We had been so busy drinking it, I had forgotten to add it. Oops. I added it to the sauce, put the heat back on, whisked it for five minutes and poured it back on the meat. Julia Child might have noticed the difference but no else one would. In the end, it took 90 minutes to make boeuf bourguignon in the pressure cooker. That's not 20 minutes, but it's less than half the time it would have taken to make it the classic French way. C'est bonne.

For more information on classes, contact Arlene Ward, (973) 694-5115 or Ward charges $55-$75 per class, depending on size of class and ingredients used.

Arlene Ward's Risotto with Cheese and Rosemary (6 minutes under high pressure)


4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup chopped red onion

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

2 teaspoons fresh rosemary

3/4 cup carnaroli or Arborio rice

1/4 cup white wine

1 3/4 cup chicken stock

salt and pepper to taste

1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon butter

Heat butter and sauté onion and garlic until softened. Add rosemary and rice and thoroughly coat it with buyer. Add wine and recede until absorbed. Add stock, salt and pepper to taste.

Turn heat to high and lock lid in place. Bring to high pressure and adjust heat to maintain pressure. Cook for 6 minutes. Reduce with quick release and remove lid, tilting it away from you to allow any excess steam to escape Add parmesan cheese and mix.

This makes enough for four people.

Arlene Ward's BBQ Chicken (10 minutes under high pressure)


1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1/2 cup prepared barbecue sauce

1/2 cup water

1 3.5 pound chicken, cut into small pieces. (I used boneless, skinless chicken thighs.)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

In a 2.5, 5 or 7 quart pressure cooker, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic until vegetables soften, about 2 minutes .Stir in barbecue sauce and water. Add chicken pieces and coat with BBQ sauce.

Lock lid in place. Bring to high pressure over high heat. Adjust heat to maintain pressure. Cook for 10 minutes. Quick release the pressure. Open lid, titling away from you to block any escaping steam. Transfer chicken to an oven going serving dish, preferably metal.

Meanwhile, bring cooking liquid in pot to a boil over medium high heat. Cook uncovered, stirring often to avoid scorching, until sauce thickens, about 5 minutes.

Turn on broiler.

Pour sauce over waiting chicken, making sure every piece is covered. Place in preheated broiler about six inches from source of heat. Allow chicken to brown---about 5 minutes.

Arlene Ward's Boeuf Bourguignon (20 minutes under high pressure)


1 tablespoon olive oil

3 bacon strips, coarsely chopped (I used turkey bacon)

3 pounds beef bottom round, cut into 1 1/2 inch thick pieces (ask butcher to do this for you; this was $4.49/pound at Kings)

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste (I used more)

10 ounces white mushrooms, sliced into quarters

4 medium carrots, cut into 1 inch lengths (I used baby carrots)

1/2 cup chopped shallots

2 garlic cloves

1 cup hearty red wine, such as Zinfandel (I used cabarnet sauvignon, Julia Child recommends Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone, Bordeaux-St. Emilion, or Burgundy)

2 cups homemade beef broth (I used College Inn organic)

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1/4 cup all purpose flour or 2 tablespoons corn starch

In a 5-7 quart pressure cooker, heat oil over medium heat. Add bacon and cook, stirring occasionally until bacon is crisp and brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Put bacon fat into small bowl. Return 1 tablespoon of fat to cooker, reserving remaining fat.

Heat fat over medium high heat. In batches (probably three), adding more fat as needed, add def and cook, turning occasionally, until browned, about 4 minutes. Transfer beef to plate. Season beef with salt and pepper and set aside.

Put 1 tablespoon of reserved fat into cooker. Reduce heat to medium. Add mushrooms, carrots, shallots and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms soften, about 5 minutes. Add wine. Bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits on bottom of pan with a wooden spoon. Stir in broth and tomato paste. Return beef and juices on the plate to the cooker.

Lock lid in place. Bring to high pressure over high heat. Adjust heat to maintain pressure. Cook for 20 minutes, Remove from heat and quick release the pressure. Open lid, tilting it away from you to block any escaping steam. Stir in reserved bacon. Using a large skimmer or slotted spoon, transfer the meat and vegetables to a deep serving bowl. Cover with tin foil to keep warm and let liquid stand for 5 minutes.

Skim fat from surface of cooking liquid. Bring to a boil, uncovered, over medium high heat. In a medium bowl, using a rubber spatula, work the butter and flour together until smooth. Gradually whisk about 1 cup of cooking liquid into flour mixture to make a thin paste. Briskly whisk paste into boiling liquid. Cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened and no trace of raw flour taste remains, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Pour sauce over meat and vegetables, stir gently and serve.

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