My mother used a pressure cooker almost every day of her life. I think she made green beans, mashed potatoes, cauliflower and other vegetables, but there is the only one specific dish I remember: navy beans.
One day when she and my sister and I returned from a shopping expedition, we found that something had gone wrong with a pressure cooker full of beans. I think my father was supposed to have been watching it, but no one had, and so the entire kitchen was festooned with dripping beans. Beans on the stove, beans on the counter, beans on the refrigerator.
My sister, who was about 5, pointed up. "Look, there are beans on the ceiling!"
The incident discouraged me from ever touching a pressure cooker, until recently, when I discovered that the cookers, relegated to the attic when microwaves became popular in the '70s, were making a comeback -- for a lot of good reasons. They're easy to use, make for healthful cooking and can cut cooking times by as much as 70 percent. And today's pressure cookers have several safety features that keep the beans off the ceiling.
So I got one, and, after spending several days cooking everything from Moroccan lamb stew to lemon curd, I can say, with complete safety, that this is a wonderful device.
I'm not alone in my enthusiasm. According to Dale Anderson, of the NPD Group, a market-research firm, sales of pressure cookers "are up quite a bit" in the past year. About 400,000 pressure cookers were sold between September 1997 and August 1998, an increase of 50 percent, or 130,000 units, over the previous 12-month period.
"They're definitely back in," says Carol Heding Munson, author of "Smart Pressure Cooker Recipes" (Sterling Publishing Co., 1998, $9.95). "They allow cooks to do pot roast and long-simmering stews in a short period of time. It really fits the needs of many of us these days."
Like that other '70s device making a comeback recently, the crockpot, pressure cookers help time-stressed cooks. Unlike crockpots, slow cookers that are filled hours before a meal is to be served (and thus require a high degree of organization), pressure cookers can be called into action at the last minute.
These days there is a wide variety of models to choose from, from inexpensive ones for about $60 to fancier models that cost between $100 and $200. There are several manufacturers in the
field: Presto, T-Fal and Kuhn-Rikon are three of them. I bought an inexpensive model that looked a lot like the one my mother had.
For my first recipe, I chose a turkey dish, made with turkey breast slices, Canadian bacon, mushrooms and pearl onions. I had already read the entire instruction booklet, handling each part of the cooker so I was sure I knew what it was.
My pressure cooker is a jiggler model, meaning the pressure-regulating device is a weighted cap that goes over the vent pipe in the middle of the lid. You place the cooker over medium to high heat to bring up the pressure; you know it's reached the right point when the jiggler begins rocking and hissing. Then you lower the heat just enough to keep the cap jiggling and start timing. The turkey dish took 10 minutes.
I was nervous about recognizing the pressure point, and not at all sure what to do if the thing misbehaved. I have a new kitchen, with glass-front cabinet doors!
When the cooking period was done, I carefully released the pressure.
Everything worked perfectly. The dish was great.
Confidence established, I went on to cook with the new cooker for the next several days, testing everything from simple vegetables to a more complex Moroccan-inspired stew with tomatoes, onions and chickpeas.
I had only one problem, and that was when I trusted a recipe and wrapped custard cups full of lemon curd with microwave-proof plastic film. The film didn't stand up to the 250 degrees of pressurized heat in the cooker and dissolved into the lemon curd. I threw out the entire batch and made it again, using foil. The second time it worked beautifully.
I loved having artichokes ready to eat in 10 minutes. Salmon poached perfectly, coming out tender and flaky and moist. I made a chicken, asparagus and pasta dish to serve a friend, and she was amazed at how simple it was to prepare, and at how complex the flavors of the dish were.
It all seemed like magic. But it's really pretty simple.
"A pressure cooker is basically a pot," says Braun Richard, of T-Fal Corp., a France-based firm that makes a variety of cookware. "What makes it a pressure cooker is the top, the lid. There are two types of [pressure] tops, the jiggle top, which is a weighted top. Then the newest pots have a spring valve -- on the cover of the pot is a little valve that has several settings for quick-release, for delicates, like vegetables, and for things like meats."