When time is tight, turn to the pressure cooker.
Forget about the time Aunt Tillie's pea soup ended up on the kitchen ceiling. And forget, too, about her favorite pressure cooker recipes for mushy, overcooked food. If you want to put a delicious, nourishing meal on the table in, say, 15 minutes, you need a pressure cooker--one of the gorgeous-to-behold new models that have enough safety backup mechanisms to make them idiot proof.
My own experience with pressure cookers dates from the mid-1980s, when my mom brought a pressure cooker back from India and proceeded to turn out curries and dals in less than 10 minutes. I was impressed. Something of a junk-food vegetarian, I saw that I could incorporate homemade lentil soup, chickpeas and wheat berries into my diet without spending hours in the kitchen. I have pressure-cooked almost daily ever since, and I'm still impressed with what my cooker can do.
Here's how the pressure cooker works its magic: When the tightly sealed cooker is set over high heat, steam pressure builds and the internal temperature rises, increasing the boiling point from the standard 212° to 250°. Under high pressure (about 15 pounds per square inch), the fiber in food is tenderized and flavors mingle in record time. What's more, fewer nutrients are lost because cooking is so speedy and because nutrient-rich steam condenses in the pot instead of being lost in the air.
Although I use my pressure cooker for beans and grains and dense vegetables, it also makes quick work of tenderizing meat. A three-pound pot roast is ready in an hour.
Here are some of my favorite recipes that take advantage of the pressure cooker to create dishes with lots of taste in practically no time. Before you begin, note the following:
* All the recipes are designed to be prepared in a 6-quart (or larger) cooker, although I use a 2 1/2 quart pan for the risotto.
* Do not fill the pressure cooker to more than 1/2 to 3/4 of the total capacity, depending upon the ingredients and the manufacturer's specifications. There must be room inside for the pressure to build.
* Larger pots take longer to come up to pressure, but the cooking time under pressure remains the same.
* Calculate cooking time from the moment high pressure is reached. On newer cookers, watch for the appropriate line on the pressure indicator. For best results, use a timer.
Lorna J. Sass is the author of Cooking Under Pressure (1989) and Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure (1994), both published by William Morrow.