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Archive for January, 2014

Do you remember that song  by David Bowie and Queen? It came out in 1981 and spent 10 weeks on the charts before reaching number 1. About that time, I had landed my first job: an entry level sales position which demanded three consecutive months of achieving quota or you were out on your ass, along with your navy skirt suit, sensible pumps and shiny new leather briefcase. Whenever I was feeling the down draft from the corner office about meeting my numbers, I found myself humming it under my breath, in an endless loop. Apparently, I was actually managing my stress without knowing it: according to Lifehacker.com, humming a tune decreases anxiety and is a coping mechanism for situations like having someone in authority breathing down your neck. Or since we were in the 80’s, the collar of your white silk blouse with red dicky tie!

But I digress.  I am no longer marching to someone else’s tune,  but I have the luxury of  creating my own set of pressures. I live in San Miguel de Allende Mexico, where the air is sweet, the hummingbirds dart among the flowers, and the meat is as tough as an old leather boot. I go to restaurants  armed with a package of various dental devices to remove the sinew and stringy bits.   The saving grace is that meat is rarely expensive:  but how to turn all of those cheap cuts of shank, rib and shoulder roast into something not only edible, but tender and delicious?

I was inspired by an episode of  Canadian Chef Michael Smiths’s cooking show, where he demonstrated the difference in results between a braising a beef stew for 2 hours in a traditional dutch oven, for 8 hours in a slow cooker and for 30 minutes in a pressure cooker.  From my perspective, even though I am in no hurry,  I liked the look of the pressure cooker result better:  the carrots and onions looked brighter, and had retained more of their original colour and texture and the meat was still brown and appetizing.  Both the oven and the slow cooker results were pronounced tasty and tender, but the colour of the meat was tending to coal and the vegetables looked anemic and mushy.  Also in the pressure cooker’s favour was the use of gas, which is relatively cheap here in Mexico, versus electricity, which is wildly expensive. Which is to say, about the same as in Ontario, thanks to Dalton McGinty’s wasteful and misguided green energy policies.

But I digress. Since my esposo has been on an energy conservation crusade here, I thought that there might be merit in trying out the technology.  If you are interested in all of the very good reasons to use a pressure cooker,  the full technical and chemical explanation is at www.foodrenegade.com/pressure-cooking-healthy.   The short answer is simply common sense:  less cooking time, more nutrients, less liquid, more nutrients.  And due to those 2 factors, plus the nature of cooking under fast high heat, more intense flavour. And you get “denatured” proteins without the hours of cooking time (denatured is a  fancy chemical word for “broken down”, which is how you get from shoe leather to succulent, regardless of the process you use. )

CHEFS ARE EMBRACING a green technology that makes cooking faster, flavors more intense, braised meats more tender, stocks richer, whole grains easier to handle and root vegetables more flavorful. The good news for home cooks: This transformational piece of equipment is not a pricey Pacojet nor a complex sous-vide setup. It’s a common, relatively inexpensive and easy-to-use pressure cooker.  WSJ January 18, 2013

And from England, endorsement from a famously obsessive chef:
Pressure cookers are used by chefs but rarely on TV. Heston Blumenthal writes about them regularly, heaping praise on them for their stock making abilities, believing it’s the best method not just for flavour (he raves about the “depth and complexity” you can achieve) but for clarity too. Guardian, July 7 2010
 In looking for  the best combination of quality, functionality and price,  we of course turned  course to America’s Test Kitchen, that happy laboratory of culinary nerdism. The results of their testing gave us the optimal criteria:  straight up sides with a broad disk at the bottom for even heat distribution, made of sturdy, non reactive stainless steal , and a minimum of 8 quarts. As for price, the “Rolls Royce” of their tests came in at $280 USD!  Santa Claus brought us their runner-up:  a 10 quart Elite Fagor, made in Spain and purchased on eBay for less than half the price.
We  jumped into the deep end of the pool, and  made one of Ben’s favourite dishes, the classic beef stew,  Boeuf Bourguignon.  It is an adaption of the definitive recipe from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child et al. (If you would like the adaption, please send me a comment and I will forward it to you.)  It shaves two and half hours off the cooking process by using a  pressure cooker. 
Despite starting at 7pm, we did not sit down to dinner until 9:30.  Some time saving!  I could provide excuses, such as set up time for photos, but the fact remains that we spent 1 hour at least getting the three pounds of beef to a nice rich burnished brown.  Browning is the necessary step to achieving the Maillard reaction, in which the protein molecules and simple sugars start their complicated dance,  ensuring a deep and complex flavour in the resulting dish. Crowding the  pan with protein will produce steam, and moist protein  turns an unappetizing and flavourless grey.  So since we only used one, albeit large sauté pan,  it took a little longer than we planned.  In fact, we were so anxious (not to mention hungry) that I was still reading the critical instructions for sealing the pot and bringing it up to pressure while Ben struggled with the lid while the pot was sitting on a burner on high flame!
The makings of a classic

The makings of a classic

Cooking time was twenty- two  minutes under pressure (we added 2 minutes of cooking time for our high altitude)  and then 15 minutes to lower the pressure.   After reducing the sauce for 5 minutes  while we sautéed the mushrooms, we were ready to plate and to taste our first foray into the world of pressure cooking.
It  was delicious:  candy sweet carrots and onions, a rich red broth from the red wine and tomato paste, and of course, tender unctuous  morsels of beef.  With a glass of hearty but fruity red wine (we both cooked with and drank a Malbec) and a green salad of our first crop of baby arugula, it was the definition of comfort food  on a crisp Saturday night in San Miguel. (I cannot call our evenings here cold:  that would be an insult to our Canadian brethren who are freezing in the dark)
A pan of rich and wonderful goodness

A pan of rich and wonderful goodness

  I would do some things differently next time:  the Julia Child recipe called for  a coating of flour on the beef which did not add much.   Next time I would use cornstarch to thicken and get that attractive shiny glaze on the beef. We served the stew on noodles which was not the best vehicle for capturing the sauce:  mashed potatoes would be a better choice. (Ben wholeheartedly agrees, never having met a potato he did not like, with the exception of frozen french fries, for which he has a finely tuned radar)  And of course, we would rather spend the time cleaning  3 pans than waiting for all of that beef to brown!
Next up,  Pho!  (Rhymes with Duh) This  savoury and deeply satisfying Vietnamese  broth can take 6 to 8  hours to produce, simmering away on the back on of the stove. The pressure cooker is an ideal method to produce a similarly flavourful result in about an hour.

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