Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Under Pressure

Rob has already waxed rhapsodic over the mixie, and I admit that the mixie is a fine bit of hardware but the appliance that has won my heart and enriched my India experience is the humble pressure cooker. It doesn't look like much and it certainly isn't sexy, but what a work horse! I've always had a vague fear of the pressure cooker - hearing horror stories in the early 70s of pressure cookers exploding and imagining steam burns encased in a scalding hot poultice of splattered legumes was enough to convince me that a pressure cooker was an outdated contraption best left to the 1950s, 60s and those millet and lentil 70s. That is, until now.

The pressure cooker is an everyday appliance in most Indian households. The average Indian housewife would not be without several pressure cookers of varying sizes, perhaps because the diet here is so leguminous (new word meaning heavy in legumes). Perhaps because, as Stanley our landlord advised us, fuel is "costly" and a pressure cooker cuts cooking time by more than a half, thereby saving fuel and money. Or, perhaps it is because it saves time, the busy new era housewife can fit more into her day. Or because of the decreased time and savings in energy - either electricity or gas - it is the green cooker of choice. Why they are so popular here is not that important, they just are. Why have they gone out of favour in the West? I blame the microwave, but that's a whole different kettle of kingfish, which we won't get into just yet.

For those not in the know, the pressure cooker is a thick bottomed pot with a lid that seals completely the escape of steam or air. On the lid of the pressure cooker is a jiggly weight sitting atop the one pin sized hole in the sealed pot. As the pot is heated on the stove with food and liquid, the liquid produces steam, the steam builds up since it has only a tiny hole to vent through and this pressure (usually 15 psi or pounds per square inch) cooks the food at a much faster rate - saving time, fuel and sometimes vitamins. If you're interested in how and why they work the way they do, read this. For food that takes a very long time to cook to become tender - cheap cuts of meat and dried beans - the pressure cooker is a godsend. There are some basic safety rules to follow: careful removal of the weight only after it stops hissing, followed by the opening of the lid, never the other way round, and always check that nothing has blocked that little pin hole BEFORE you start cooking.

The day that Rob and I bought the mixie, we also decided to purchase a pressure cooker. We had watched Chitra use her pressure cooker to make the fabulous duck recipe and, despite jumping out of our skins the first time it "whistled", it seemed kind of harmless. It helps that new era pressure cookers have safety plugs and gasket release mechanisms. So we bought a Prestige 3 litre pressure cooker. A heavy aluminum pot with a little black weight and a whistle that reminds you that the chickpeas are almost ready even if you are 2 rooms away. "Whistle" is a euphemism, "screech" is more apt.

So I started to Google. Yes, I am getting a reputation, and, I have to admit it is mostly well-founded. Google is my friend. Back to the matter at hand, did you know that there are scores of cookbooks and websites devoted to cooking with the pressure cooker? Meat, pulses, vegetables, grains and even dessert recipes all made in the pressure cooker - I may even attempt a pressure cooked cake for Miles' upcoming birthday.

For a gal who really likes beans and whole grains - a bacon and seafood eating vegetarian at heart - the pressure cooker is a thing of majesty. As an example, it can take an hour and a half of simmering to cook wheat berries to a point where they are even beginning to be edible but in the pressure cooker, 20-30 minutes does it all. Cracked wheat (which is NOT the same as Bulgur which has been hulled, steamed and toasted so is already partially cooked and cooks up fairly quickly) takes about 40 minutes to cook in a regular pot. In the pressure cooker, a mere 1 minute. Of course it is easy to overcook food in a pressure cooker so checking out some of the online timetables can be very helpful.

This is a recipe for an Indian sweet called Lapsi I found online. I believe it's north Indian but we can get all the ingredients here in the south. I've altered it - I significantly lowered the amounts of both ghee and sugar - and we think it makes a great breakfast!

Bailey Lapsi (serves 5 in our household)

2T ghee or butter
3 cinnamon sticks broken in half
1 1/2 c cracked wheat, washed and drained
2 3/4 c water
1 chunk jaggery, chopped finely (palm sugar piece approx 2" x 1" x 1", you can substitute 2-3T brown sugar)
1/4 c roasted cashews, roughly chopped
2 small bananas, peeled and sliced (or one North American sized banana)
1 mango, peeled and chopped

Heat ghee in the bottom of the pressure cooker with the lid off over medium heat. Add cinnamon sticks and stir for a few moments. Add the drained cracked wheat and stir to coat in ghee. Toast the cracked wheat for about 2 minutes, until it changes colour a bit and smells toasty. Add water, stir, and secure the lid on the pressure cooker. Place the weight on top. Over high heat, bring the pressure cooker up to full pressure. When it screeches, turn down to medium and cook for 1 minute. Remove cooker from heat and let it depressurise naturally - there are quick release methods but you don't want to use these for this recipe as the wheat needs to stand a bit. Once you can jiggle the weight and it doesn't hiss, you can remove the weight and open the lid (be careful, the steam is hot!). Add jaggery and stir to dissolve. When the jaggery has dissolved, add all other ingredients. Stir and serve (you can pick out the cinnamon sticks or let the eaters do it themselves). Of course you can cook this in a regular pot but it'll take a long time. This recipe is also open to all sorts of substitutions - different spices, fruit and nuts - I used what we get easily here. You can also serve it with plain yogurt to spoon on top and it would be great with berries... yum.

I love my pressure cooker. Shhhh. Don't tell my husband...

1 comment:

Chris said...

I love mine too Laurel. Great soup in 30 minutes? Sweet.