Pressure Cooking: Duck and Cover or Relax?

1956:

Blub, blub, blub. Wheeze, whistle, spit. KABOOM! A silver lid with an attached gauge becomes a projectile and looks like a flying saucer shooting forth from its aluminum pot base. Scalding hot water takes to the air.  Someone screams, “Oh, my God,” in the background, followed by a 3-pound beef brisket that explodes like the A-bomb tests out in the Nevada desert. A mushroom cloud of brown meat rises above the white Westinghouse range.  Shrapnel-like bits of Duck and Cover3beef plaster themselves to the kitchen ceiling.  Well rehearsed in the duck and cover rule, I crouch beneath the red linoleum and aluminum kitchen table at the first explosion, until a grownup declares it safe to come out. 

Yes, a bomb had burst. A bomb called a pressure cooker. And that’s the exact memory I had when my daughter delivered the nearly new Cuisinart pressure cooker she bought for herself, just prior to her stint on Season 9 Top Chef.  “Here, Mom, I’m giving this to you because, as you know, I don’t really cook much at home and you’ll love it.”

It was a beautiful electric counter-top appliance that resurrected exploding nightmares and cooking intimidation.  It didn’t look like that old aluminum relic old pressure potof the past.  It was sleek and black with digital controls, and with no pressure gauge.  Still, I equated pressure cooking with disaster.

“Just go online for the instruction book,” she confidently added as I stood like a nincompoop staring at the thing of great danger.

I continued staring at the thing for a year. Not until I picked up a copy of Mother Earth News in a waiting room and then read an article about the wonderful new pressure cookers and how absolutely remarkable and healthful and the best thing since corn flakes article did I consider exploring this new but very old method of cooking.

When the article’s author mentioned that pressure cookers came from the masters of food preparation, the French, that’s when my interest really did expand. (It was 1679 when Denis Papin, a French physicist, designed an airtight cooker that used steam pressure to raise the cooking water to a boil more quickly, thereby speeding up the cooking process.)

But here’s the sentence that thrilled me,  “Pressure cookers became popular in the United States during World War II as a means of conserving energy. What was true then is still true today: You’ll save as much as 60 to 70 percent of the typical cooking time, which means you’ll use about two-thirds less energy. Unless you’re using a nifty solar cooker or woodstove, there’s almost no way to use less energy while cooking.”

I’m all about reducing my carbon footprint.

So I downloaded and read the instruction book.  Easy. Simple. No Worries. Anyone can do it.

Next, the recipe book downloaded in its Adobe format. When I spotted the cooking time for black beans, which I had forgotten to soak overnight and didn’t have time to get them cooked (in the slow cooker, of course), the excitement’s tension overwhelmed me. I pictured a pot of steaming hot black beans ready in about a half-hour and that pushed me to the pantry in search of the dark legumes.

All it required of me was 8 cups of water to 2 cups of beans, 2 tablespoons of oil, cuisinartand any spices I wished to add.  I attached the lid and turned it until it locked; pushed the “menu” button to high pressure and told it to do that for 30 minutes.  About 40 minutes later (the extra time included bringing the water to the boiling point) the appliance beeped, and I “quick released” the steam by turning a switch.  Bada bing! Beans ready.  No flying saucers, no explosions, no need to duck and cover.

But I don’t easily trust those that failed me before.  So I offered the black appliance short ribs. I browned the ribs in the pressure cooker (it has a setting for that), and then gave them the squeeze.  In less than an hour I served fall-off-the-bone short ribs that were juicy and tender.  Probably the best I ever cooked–and I can cook some mean ribs—usually in about 3 hours or so.

“Help me, I think I’m falling in love with you,” I began mimicking songstress Joni Mitchell to the Cuisinart.

Artichokes: 9 minutes.  Acorn squash: 8 minutes. Potatoes: 7 minutes. Wild rice: 10 minutes. Brisket: 55 minutes—and it won’t turn into a mushroom cloud exploding in the kitchen.

I tend to cook on the fly.  Half the time I make up dinner at the last-minute.  With this pressure cooker, the proverbial pressure is off me. The real pressure within the cooker, safely and wholesomely cooks while I relax.

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