Thursday, August 11, 2011

Cooking with Pressure: Fast, Healthy, Flavorful

Most younger Americans have probably never seen a pressure cooker, let alone used one. Pressure cookers had their heyday in the 1940's following their introduction at the 1939 New York World's Fair, but they were soon supplanted by the huge wave of convenience foods which swept the country in the 1950's, when most of those old cookers were relegated to basements and attics and forgotten.

But pressure cookers retained a place of honor in kitchens throughout much of Europe, South America, North Africa and India, where they are valued for making flavorful healthy meals which are also remarkably fuel and time efficient. The most beautifully designed sleek, safe and durable pressure cookers like the Italian one in the photo are made by European manufacturers; these contemporary stainless steel models last for a lifetime and are a pleasure to use.

Today the pressure cooker is again gaining recognition in the U.S. among cooks who appreciate the intense, concentrated and pure flavors created by relatively brief cooking under pressure. Dense vegetables like beets, winter squash, carrots and potatoes cook in roughly one third the time required by conventional cooking methods, as do legumes, brown rice, barley and other whole grains. Savory vegetable stews, soups and sauces which normally require slow cooking can be prepared in minutes using a single pot from start to finish.

I acquired my first Italian pressure cooker in 1982 and have used it year round since then. In warm weather I prepare garbanzo beans or white beans to use in fresh green salads with ripe tomatoes and herbs. In autumn when apples and pears are plentiful, I make apple- pear sauce with cinnamon and ginger; in winter, black beans and spicy red bean chile are often on the menu. Winter and summer, this dependable kitchen tool keeps the pressure in the pot where it belongs, and out of the kitchen.