Saturday, January 2, 2010

January: Cooking Under Pressure: Slow Food… Fast

The term “Slow Food” is often misunderstood. As I’ve noted in this column in the past, when I first heard of the organization I assumed it was devoted to taking a long time to cook savoury meals. Instead, the term was coined in reaction to everything that “fast food” represents, from poor quality ingredients of unknown origin to hastily gobbled meals served in plastic environments. “Slow food” can actually be cooked quite quickly, so long as the ingredients are of high quality and locally produced, and the meal is consumed in a relaxed and convivial atmosphere. A stir-fry, for example, can and should be very quickly cooked from the highest quality ingredients.

However, it is often the case that “slow food” is, indeed, the product of cooking techniques that take time. I think of slow-cooked stews and pot roasts, pasta sauces and soups, chili, pulled pork, and tagine. The slow cooker is an ideal technique for these dishes and provides an excellent method for busy cooks to produce slow-simmered meals easily and conveniently. Another, and in many ways superior, method of cooking these hearty “winter” meals is the pressure cooker.

Apparently, interest in the pressure cooker is reviving in Canada. Very popular in the post-war years, the device suffered from poor manufacturing standards and difficult to use technology and fell into disfavour in the 1960’s after widely publicized kitchen disasters involving exploding pot roasts and kitchens redecorated with pressure-applied soup. In Europe and Asia, pressure cookers never disappeared, and it is manufacturers from those parts of the world that are now supplying the high-tech, safe, foolproof pressure cookers now on the market here.

Why use a pressure cooker? There are four reasons to consider cooking under pressure: speed, nutrition, flavour, and economy.

Pressure cooked meals take about one third as long as the same meal cooked conventionally. In other words, you can produce a delicious pot roast that has all the attributes of a long-simmered, carefully tended meal in less than an hour. And it will have retained more of the nutrients, taste better, and cost less to make than the stove-top or oven version.

Because the meal is cooked in a sealed environment, nothing is boiled off or allowed to escape. Vegetables retain virtually all of their nutrients (and their vivid colour) in contrast with boiling or even steaming which leach the nutrients out of the food. Furthermore, pressure cooking requires no fat or oil. And the taste of the original food is retained the same way that nutrients are. The only way to get food that tastes better or has more nutritional value is to eat it raw.

As for economy, pressure cooking uses less energy because it takes less time and is cooked at lower heat than any other method. It also allows the use of cheaper, tougher cuts of meat, since the pressure process tenderizes as it cooks. A demonstration of the first pressure cooker in the 17th century for King Charles II of England and The Royal Society reduced “ the bones of beef, the best for clearness and good relish, and the most delicious that I had ever seen, or tasted” according to one of the guests.

So what’s the down side? Darned if I know. I’ve used a pressure cooker for about 40 years, moving from one of the old “rocker top” models to a high-tech, double-valved, gleaming, Italian job that is as functional as it is impressive-looking. Here’s one of my favorite recipes, adapted from The New Pressure Cooker Cookbook by Pat Dailey.

Capitol Bean Soup
(reputed to be the soup served in the Senate dining room on Capitol Hill in Washington)

½ lb Great Northern beans, soaked overnight and drained
4 Cups water
1 large smoked ham hock or smoked turkey thigh
1 small onion minced
1 stalk of celery minced
2 Bay leaves
Combine all the ingredients in the pressure cooker and bring up to full pressure. Reduce heat to maintain 15 lb. pressure and cook for 25 minutes. Release the pressure and remove the Bay leaves and hock. With the back of a spoon, mash some of the beans to thicken the soup and add the shredded meat from the hock along with salt and pepper to taste.

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