The pressure is on

Wonderful flavors of orange, rosemary, and red wine are perfect for a weeknight Valentine's day dish.

With so many new kitchen gadgets coming onto the market these days, it’s easy to understand why home cooks feel overwhelmed by the expanding kitchen toolbox on offer from our favorite retailers. We thought it would be nice to take a step back in time by returning to a classic, trusted device we’ve come to love – the pressure cooker. As we write “trusted,” our thoughts turn to our mothers and their fears of exploding lids, shattered glass and hot molten food blown all over ceilings and walls. Some love these things, some hate them, and some don’t know what the hell we’re talking about. Read on, we’ll explain.

Pressure cookers are stove top pans with locking lids on them that use steam and pressure to cook food very, very quickly. Think of it as a sort of precursor to the microwave that hisses but doesn’t emit electromagnetic waves (or reheat coffee). There are so many great uses for the pressure cooker it’s a wonder why there aren’t more of them in U.S. households. But when we bring up the joys of the pressure cooker to our moms, we can see shrieks of terror in their eyes. Modern pressure cookers are infinitely safer than those our grandmothers used to put up preserves. With built-in safety features that prevent explosions even under the most negligent use, these cookers provide the perfect solution to the home cook who wants to prepare slow food quickly. Slow cookers, used for long braising of roasts and all-day simmering of stews, certainly have their time and place in the kitchen, but when you want to cook a stew or beans extra fast there’s only one device that will get the job done and it isn’t your microwave oven.

If you’re in the mood for a hardy yet elegant dish for Valentine’s day, without all the stress, may we suggest that you try’s Lamb and Shitake Mushroom Stew in the pressure cooker. The wonderful thing about this recipe is that you can substitute  almost any meat for the lamb (our latest version made use of wild elk). You can  use button or portabella mushrooms in place of the shitake if you don’t like the shitake’s slippery texture.  It’s even better made a day or two ahead and reheated, served over buttered noodles, orzo, polenta, rice, or simply in a bowl with a nice piece of baguette on the side to sop up the delicious sauce. So there’s no need to stress over what to cook on Monday night’s romantic dinner if you’ve planned ahead, just reheat and serve.

Pressure cookers are safe and easy to use. They’re also energy efficient. So put away any fear of catastrophe inherited from the cooks in your family and invest in a tool you’ll love the very first time you put it to use. You can spend a little or a lot on a good pressure cooker. Our suggestion is to start modestly. Our pressure cooker was a gift, but we suspect it wasn’t a bank breaker. We don’t need a lot of bells and whistles on a pressure cooker – quick pressure release, low pressure settings, etc. We’ve experimented with ours and know how to get the best out of it. With a little time, you’ll get there too.

This Lamb and Shitake Stew recipe makes use of some of our favorite flavors – red wine, rosemary, orange and salty Kalamata olive. Use grass-fed beef if you can’t find good lamb. You’ll still be pleased by the results. In the pressure cooker, all those great flavors come together in minutes. Enjoy!

Pressure Cooked Meat and Mushroom Stew (aka Lamb and Shitake Stew)
Can be doubled and frozen for a quick dinner later in the month

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb. lamb shoulder meat or chops, beef, elk or pork roast cut into 3/4-inch cubes
6 ounces fresh mushrooms, shitake (stemmed), button, or portabella mushroom cut into 1/2-inch pieces,
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 3×1/2-inch strips orange peel (orange part only)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 14 1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
1 cup Chianti, Sangiovese, or other fruity red wine
10 Kalamata olives or other brine-cured black olives, pitted, halved

Heat oil in a pressure cooker pot over high heat. Sprinkle lamb, or whatever meat you are using, with salt and pepper. Add the meat to pot; sauté until light brown, about 5 minutes, you may need to do this in two steps to avoid overcrowding the pan. Add the next 5 ingredients; sauté until onion is golden, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes with juices and wine; bring to boil. Put the lid on top of the pressure cooker and reduce heat to medium-low for about 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat, release the pressure and stir, checking to make sure that the stew does not burn on the bottom of the pan. If the sauce is still too thin then put the lid back on, bring back to pressure and cook for another 5 minutes.

Add olives to stew and season with salt and pepper. (Can be made a day or two ahead. Cool slightly. Refrigerate uncovered until cold, then cover and keep refrigerated. Rewarm over medium heat, adding water by tablespoonfuls to thin sauce if desired.) Serve with orzo, buttered noodles, or rice as the base for the stew.

A Bean By Any Other Name: Garbanzo, Ceci, Chickpea

Top (L to R) Garbanzo beans with kalamata olives, roasted peppers, lemon & olive oil, accompanied with roasted goat cheese stuffed figs wrapped with prosciutto. With parsley, vinegar and olive oil. Bottom (L to R): With whole wheat pasta, saute of greens, shredded cheese, and prosciutto. With brown rice, peppers, pistachios, olive oil, and vinegar.

I know I’ve been down this road with earlier posts. I’m a big fan of the legume and in our house, they’re almost always prepped and on hand for any number of uses. Our pressure cooker makes easy work of cooking dry beans. It takes a good 30 minutes to go from dry to tender. And because we don’t buy them in cans, we’re not only saving money, we’re reducing waste.

The ceci bean (or garbanzo or chickpea or Egyptian pea) cooks just as quickly as any other hard, dry bean in spite of their rough and tough exterior. I love these beans for their firm texture and their warm, nutty flavor. Never mind that they’re packed with fiber and protein as well as a host of minerals including calcium and phosphorus. Most of us know them in pureed form as hummus, but we eat them in a variety of ways – whole in salads, as an addition to brothy soups, as a spread on bruschetta and as a companion to whole wheat pastas.

After picking over the dry beans to remove dirt and rocks, give them a good rinse and then place them in a bowl and cover with plenty of water before soaking them overnight. After soaking, rinse the beans well and place them in a large stock pot, cover with fresh water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer beans for approximately one and a half hours or until just tender. They should be completely softened. This isn’t an instance where you want ‘al dente’ centers. You can skip the soaking step if you’re using a pressure cooker. Be sure to reduce the cooking time to approximately 25 minutes. You’ll want to release the pressure after 15 minutes to check them. Adjust the remaining cooking time accordingly.

Dry Garbanzo Beans

Cooked ceci beans are fine hot, but they’re even better at room temperature. Simply dressed with extra virgin olive oil, fresh chopped parsley, course sea salt and a dash of red wine vinegar, these beauties offer up a hearty, comforting bite.

Steve & Jason