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Full steam ahead Pressure cookers are back -- faster and safer than ever

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Pressure cookers are ideal for the fast-paced health-conscious '90s.

They cook some food faster than a microwave oven, and use almost no oil. Foods prepared in a pressure cooker are intensely flavored and retain their color and nutrients.

In a pressure cooker, chicken stock takes 20 minutes, risotto 10. Vegetables cook in five to 10 minutes. Brown rice, which takes up to an hour even in the microwave, cooks in 17 minutes.

Soups and meaty stews that would take hours on top of the stove cook under pressure in an hour. Inexpensive cuts of meat come out tender.

In my kitchen, the pressure cooker ranks right up with good, sharp knives and my great-grandmother's iron frying pan.

Cooks who use pressure cookers love them; cooks who don't may still erroneously believe they are dangerous.

"Sure, so is a frying pan if you're swinging it," my mother tells me. She received a pressure cooker for a wedding present in the 1950s and used it frequently.

Pressure cookers use a technology that has been around since Napoleon. What's different about pressure cookers in the '90s is that they're safer than the heavy, hissing models of old.

Horror stories of pea soup on the ceiling were the result of older technology combined with improper use. The new cookers have a number of safety features. The instruction manuals are easier to read as well.

And pressure cookers inspire intense loyalty.

"I had a friend over for dinner one evening, and I served risotto," says Lorna Sass, author of "Cooking Under Pressure" (William Morrow and Co., $18.95). "My friend was so smitten, she stopped at a store on the way home and bought a pressure cooker."

If you make only one thing in the pressure cooker, make risotto.

The pressure cooker uses a basic principal, according to Mirro Corp. engineer Terry Hacker. Food and liquid are sealed in the cooker and heated, causing the food to superheat to more than 250 degrees -- some 40 degrees above the boiling point.

Food cooks faster with less oil.

"The enclosed environment and intensely heated steam heighten the flavor of food," Mr. Hacker says.

Cooking time is cut to one-third to one-tenth the original time, author Pat Dailey writes in "The New Pressure Cooker Cookbook" (Contemporary Books, $8.95).

Ms. Sass prefers the pressure cooker over the microwave for three reasons.

"The pressure cooker provides deep and complex taste -- two-hour taste in 10 minutes -- and mingles flavors in record time," she says.

"Push-button cooking is sterile. Pressure cooking, stove-top cooking, better resembles traditional cooking in that aromas and flavors are much more satisfying."

And, finally, "The pressure cooker is fabulous for quantities. Pressure cooking doesn't take longer with increased amounts, whereas the microwave does."

Introduced at the fair

The Presto Co. introduced the pressure cooker to the American public at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. The timing was

perfect. In a few years, every housewife in the country had one. The slight hiss of escaping steam and the rattle of the pressure valve were sure signs that dinner was almost ready.

During World War II, the Presto facilities were used to make defense equipment. Women marched off to the factories and used the home as their battleground to fight waste and inefficiency.

Housewives were urged to aid in the war effort by sharing their pressure cooker with friends and neighbors. Presto ran the following footnote to an ad in July 1943: "The manufacturing facilities of the makers of Presto Cookers are now devoted to war production. Once victory is won -- there will be Presto cookers for everyone. Until then, if you own one, share it, won't you? It's a good neighbor policy."

In 1945, Presto resumed domestic production and urged patience as the company filled a backlog of orders.

The cookers were being snapped up in Europe, too.

"As a result of the war, Europeans had to make do eating very old cows, making the tenderizing properties of pressure cooking attractive to them," says Rudy Keller, U.S. president for Kuhn-Rikon, a Swiss company.

Pressure cooker technology took a leap forward in 1949 when Kuhn-Rikon developed the fixed, spring-loaded, pressure-regulating valve, creating the second generation of pressure cookers.

"Technological advances in the pressure cooker became a priority because pressure cooking is used in virtually every cuisine in the world," Mr. Keller says. Any cuisine that uses grains, legumes or rice uses a pressure cooker.

Declining popularity

In the 1950s, the pressure cooker's popularity began to decline in the United States -- done in by the new frozen meals, pressure cooking was considered old-fashioned.

Now, Mr. Keller says, "The U.S. is the least pressure-cooker populated country in the world. Nowhere else does the cooker have such a stigma."

In Europe, he says, "Cooks have different sized pressure cookers for each need -- one for canning, one for fast meals, one for stew. Most cooks use two at a time: potatoes in one, meat in another."

Mr. Hacker, the Miro engineer, says early problems with the cooker came from improper use.

"A cook would put a roast in the oven and, in essence, forget about it," he says. "With pressure cooking, the cook has to decrease the intensity of the flame as the pressure increases to maintain an even cooking environment."

Problems occurred when the flame under the cooker was not decreased and the superheated food exploded.

This scenario is a virtual impossibility with the newer cookers because of an intricate system of pressure-release valves. The newer pressure cookers also lock so the lid cannot be removed until the pressure has decreased.

When buying a pressure cooker, consider what the cooker is to be used for, its construction and price.

If you plan to use the cooker as a canning tool for low-acid foods, choose an 8-quart model.

Most families can use a 4- to 6-quart cooker. Kuhn-Rikon has recently released a pressure-cooking/frying pan that seems ideal for singles or couples.

Two kinds of cookers

There are two kinds of pressure cookers on the market: the traditional "jiggle valve" cookers and the second-generation pressure cookers. Mirro represents the least-expensive traditional pressure cookers, with prices ranging from $25 to $42, depending on the size. Made of aluminum, they combine the jiggle valve with new safety features.

T-Fal makes a hybrid jiggle valve cooker that cannot be opened until the pressure is released. T-Fal cookers range from $99 to $129.

A number of companies make second-generation cookers that use apressure tube. Cuisinart, Chantal and Kuhn-Rikon are some of the better-known brands.

The improved technology comes at a price. Cuisinarts sell for between $230 and $260, Chantal for $200 and Kuhn-Rikon for $150 to $200.

The lowest-priced jiggle-top cookers are made of aluminum, which some people believe gives a metallic taste. Most of the high-end cookers have a disc of conductive metal such as copper or aluminum built into the thick base to increase heat conductivity. All are made of heavy-gauge metal, either aluminum or stainless steel.

Filled to capacity, the pressure cooker is rather heavy; most cooks will want handles on either side.

L * Read the instruction manual, and store it with the cooker.

* Check the minimum liquid capacity. Some cookers require a two-cup minimum, some only one. The cooker will not perform up to expectations if the cook tempts fate by using less than the minimum amount of liquid.

* Begin timing only when the desired cooking pressure has been attained.

* Sear meats before cooking to enhance their flavor and color. This is probably the only time you'll use oil in the cooker.

* When cooking grains, beans or lentils, reduce the pressure in the cooker by running water over it. When in doubt about how to allow pressure to drop, simply set the cooker on a cool burner and allow it to depressurize on its own.

* Never store the cooker sealed. Insert the gasket into the lid and store with the lid upside down and the manual in the base of the cooker.

* Food cooked in a pressure cooker will be very hot. Taste with caution.

Cookbooks

* "Cooking Under Pressure" by Lorna Sass (William Morrow, $18.95)

* "The New Pressure Cooker Cookbook" by Pat Dailey (Contemporary Books, $8.95)

* "Joys of Pressure Cooking" by Detroit cooking teacher Toula Patsalis includes charts for converting existing recipes for pressure cooker use. It's $16.95 plus $3 shipping. To order, call (313) 537-1300.

*

Risotto with porcini and prosciutto

Makes 4 servings.

3/4 ounce dried porcini mushrooms (about 3/4 )

1 1/2 cups boiling water

2 to 2 1/2 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons unsalted butter (divided use)

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 medium leeks, white part only, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 teaspoon oregano

1 1/2 cups arborio rice (10 ounces)

2 1/2 ounces (about 26 thin slices) prosciutto, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons minced parsley

1/3 to 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

salt and freshly ground pepper

freshly grated nutmeg (optional)

Place the porcini in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. Rinse the mushrooms to remove any grit. Add the boiling water and set aside for 10 minutes. Drain the porcini and strain the liquid into a 1-quart measuring cup. Add chicken stock to reach the 3 1/2 -cup mark.

In a 6-quart pressure cooker, melt 1 tablespoon of butter with oil over moderate heat. Add leeks and garlic; cook, stirring, until slightly softened, about 1 minute. Add oregano and rice; stir to coat rice thoroughly with the fat. Add porcini; stir in the porcini-stock liquid.

Lock the lid in place and bring to high (15 pounds) pressure over high heat. Reduce the heat to maintain high pressure and cook for 6 minutes.

Set the pot under cold running water until all pressure is released. Remove the lid, tilting it away from you to allow excess steam to escape. Taste the rice; if it requires more cooking, add a bit more stock and stir constantly over moderate heat for 1 to 2 minutes.

Stir in the prosciutto and parsley, then stir in all but 1 tablespoon of Parmesan. Stir in remaining 1 tablespoon butter; season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with remaining Parmesan.

Source: "Cooking Under Pressure."

*

Rosemary chicken with potatoes and broccoli

Makes 6 servings.

1 1/2 pounds chicken breasts or 3 pounds frying chicken, cut into 8 pieces

1/3 cup flour

2 tablespoons butter (divided use)

2 tablespoons olive oil (divided use)

2 tablespoons sherry

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

3 shallots, minced, or 1/2 white onion, minced

1 1/2 cups canned or fresh chicken broth

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary

1 bay leaf

2 1/2 pounds new potatoes, cut into bite-size pieces

1 bunch broccoli, stems trimmed and cut into florets

1 tablespoon potato flour or Wondra (as a thickening agent)

Dust chicken with flour. In pressure cooker, saute chicken in 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat, turning to brown both sides. Transfer chicken to a platter. Scrape browned bits off the bottom of the cooker with sherry. Pour sherry over chicken.

Saute garlic and shallots or onion in remaining butter and olive oil for 2 minutes. Stir in broth and seasonings. Place chicken in cooking liquid.

Secure cooker lid. Over high heat, develop steam to high pressure (15 pounds), reduce heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes on high pressure. Release steam according to manufacturer's directions and remove lid.

Add potatoes to chicken. Layer broccoli over mixture. Secure lid. Over high heat, develop steam to medium pressure (10 pounds). Reduce flame and cook for 8 minutes. Release steam according to manufacturer's directions and remove lid.

Carefully transfer broccoli, potatoes and chicken to a serving platter. Remove bay leaf. Sprinkle potato flour or Wondra into remaining juice and thicken over medium heat for 1 minute. Spoon sauce over chicken and vegetables.

Source: Adapted from "Joys of Pressure Cooking."

*

Monsoon curried yams and potatoes

Makes 4 servings.

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons curry paste

3 cups yams

1 cup diced potatoes

2 tablespoons sake or apple juice

1 cup frozen peas

1/4 cup mango chutney

1 cup plain yogurt

1 cucumber, peeled and sliced

In a 2-quart or larger pressure frying pan or pressure cooker, saute onion, garlic and curry paste over medium heat until onion is translucent. Stir in yams and potatoes. Let them sizzle for 1 minute or until the bottom of the pan is sticky and slightly burned. Add sake and peas. Close lid; bring pressure to medium (8 to 10 pounds) over high heat. Adjust heat to stabilize pressure. Cook for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to depressurize. Serve with chutney, yogurt and cucumber.

Source: Kuhn-Rikon

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