Pressure tactics mean quick meals

January 18, 1995|By Felicia Gressette | Felicia Gressette,Knight-Ridder News Service

Lorna Sass is pretty tired of hearing those same old stories about exploding pressure cookers from people who have never even tried to use one. Despite her preaching the gospel of the pressure cooker for the last five years, the world remains full of unbelievers -- and their anecdotes.

Ms. Sass says: "I've been hearing them since '89, and I have a lot of trouble smiling now. . . . People didn't use them properly, and the pressure cooker got a bad reputation, which is holding on tenaciously."

Long a kitchen essential in many parts of the world, including the Caribbean and Central and South America, pressure cookers are stovetop pots with gaskets and locking lids that let you cook food at super-heated temperatures -- 250 degrees at high pressure. This saves time, energy, taste and nutrients.

Ms. Sass' newest book, "Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure" (Morrow, $23), is her third to explore the cookers. Like 1989's "Cooking Under Pressure" and 1992's "Recipes from an Ecological Kitchen," it explains how cookers work and is filled with nifty charts for timing grains, beans and such.

A comprehensive introductory section takes novices step-by-step through selecting, buying and learning to use a cooker; techniques, timing, trouble-shooting and cooking tips.

Ms. Sass, a culinary historian, discusses the merits of second-generation pressure cookers, with their built-in fail-safe mechanisms, vs. older "jiggle-top" models, which steam and sputter. Modern cookers are "much more user-friendly."

Presto, which makes several models of jiggle-top cookers, does not recommend cooking beans, grains or cranberries in its pots, but Ms. Sass has found including a little oil reduces or eliminates the foaming that can otherwise throw a bean skin into the valve and cause trouble.

The new book includes such recipes as a Garlic Lover's Lentil Soup (7 minutes at high pressure) and Risotto with Porcini (5 minutes high pressure).

The book's vegetarian and low-fat outlook -- Parmesan cheese is the only optional animal food to appear -- reflects changes in Ms. Sass' own habits. As she turned more toward a vegetarian diet, she realized that pressure cookers make dried beans and grains possible in minutes instead of hours.

The recipes are easy, too, once you've mastered the pressure cooker. "There's no technique," says Ms. Sass. "You don't even have to saute first if you don't want to. Sometimes, if I'm in a rush and I make a soup, I just throw everything in, and I'm not sure it makes a difference. I cook everything at high pressure. I've never seen any advantage to cooking at low pressure."

Here are two recipes from "Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure":

Last-Minute Black-Eyed Pea Chili

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 tablespoon safflower or canola oil

1 to 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped garlic

1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds

2 cups coarsely chopped onion

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup diced green bell pepper

2 1/4 cups dried black-eyed peas, picked over and rinsed

4 cups boiling water

2 to 3 tablespoons mild chili powder

1 15-ounce bottle mild or hot salsa (or a 15-ounce can of salsa-style stewed tomatoes)

1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro or parsley

salt to taste

Heat oil in pressure cooker. Cook the garlic over medium-high heat, stirring frequently until lightly browned. Add the cumin seeds and continue stirring for about 5 more seconds. Add the onions, oregano, cinnamon, green bell pepper, black-eyed peas, water (stand back to avoid sputtering oil) and 2 tablespoons of chili powder. Taste the liquid and add more chili powder if the chili flavor isn't fairly intense.

Lock the lid in place. Over high heat, bring to high pressure. Lower the heat just enough to maintain high pressure and cook 11 minutes. Remove from heat and allow the pressure to come down naturally or use a quick-release method (set the cooker in the sink and run cool water over the lid until pressure releases.)

Remove the lid, tilting it away from you to allow any excess steam to escape. The beans should be tender. If they are not, either return to high pressure for a few more minutes or replace (but do not lock) the lid and simmer until the peas are done. If the mixture is too soupy, puree about a cupful of the peas and stir the puree back into the chili.

Stir in salsa to taste (if using) and salt. Simmer for a few minutes to allow the beans to pick up some of the salsa flavor. Stir in the cilantro just before serving.

To cook conventionally: Soak peas overnight in copious cold water. Follow recipe as written, using a large soup kettle, except instead of locking the lid and so forth, bring the chili to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cook until peas are tender. This will take an hour or longer. Stir in salsa and salt to finish.

Per serving: 236 calories; 7 g protein; 4.5 g carbohydrate; 3 g fat; 13 percent of calories as fat; 13.5 g fiber; 0 mg cholesterol; 13 mg sodium.

Risotto with Winter Squash

Serves 6 as appetizer, 4 as main dish

1 tablespoon olive oil

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