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 epicurious.com’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.

An Elk Roast That Even Sarah Palin Would Be Proud Of

Elk, the other red meat.

There are very few things that Sarah Palin and I would ever agree upon, but venison being a superior meat to America’s slaughterhouse beef is one on which we definitely would see eye-to-eye. We would probably even swap a few recipes and the only debate we would have, about the meat that is, would be who makes the best chili. My chocolate cherry chili would win, hands down! But I’ll leave that blog for another day. This one is about our Elk roast dinner last night with our good friend Mary. The small party was supposed to include another friend, and artist, Zannah Noe, who’s work is displayed throughout our apartment. Unfortunately, we received a text from her at the last minute letting us know she was under the weather and wouldn’t be making it. Feel better Zannah!

We received the elk roast from Steve’s father, Karl, who lives to hunt and fish. Most people would be turned off by the smell and taste of wild meat, and I must admit that I was once that way. But over the years of substituting venison for beef, I can honestly say that I prefer the musky taste of it over the flavorless greasy beef that comes from the grocery store. It’s also nice to know exactly where the animal I’m consuming came from; what type of food it grazed on; and that it’s death was more humane than the conveyer belts of cows that line up to be slaughtered, day and night.

Is there anything more comforting than a big bowl of mashed potatoes?

The recipe for the roast came from Cook’s Illustrated, Simple Pot Roast, which you can only get online by being a member, but I’ll give you the run-down at the bottom of the post—just don’t tell Chris Kimball. The moment I unwrapped the elk roast I knew it was going to be a great meal. The meat was lean and firm, and there was no fat or sinew to cut away. The only prep work necessary was to tie the meat together and pat it dry with paper towels before placing it in a hot stock pot with vegetable oil.

As decadent as ice cream with a little less guilt.

With the pot roast we serve mashed potatoes and bleu cheese popovers, a variation of the popovers that Steve has become very fond of. Unfortunately they didn’t rise all that well, probably due to a reduction in the oven temperature, but were still quite tasty. For desert, we served a cardamom and cinnamon scented frozen yogurt, that was topped with orange segments and pistachios. It had a bit of middle eastern flare to it, but the oranges are so abundant right now and we have a lot of cardamom and cinnamon in our pantry, I thought it would be a great use for them. It was also a little lighter then say, an American cherry pie, or even traditional vanilla ice cream. The conversation was the best thing about the dinner. We really enjoyed getting to know Mary a little better and can’t wait to go over to her house and help her in her garden.

We’re hoping to have more dinner parties in the future; giving our friends the chance to try venison and some wonderful grass-fed beef.

Simple Elk Pot Roast

(adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

1 boneless elk roast (3-4 pounds)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, finely diced

4 large carrots (1 finely diced, the other 3 cut into ½ inch slices)

1 celery rib, finely diced

1 pound button mushrooms, quartered

3 gloves garlic, minced

2 cups beef broth (homemade preferred)

3 sprig fresh thyme, tied together

1-2 cups water

2 large turnips, peeled and cut into wedges (6-8 wedges each turnip)

¼ cup red wine

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Adjust the oven rack to the middle position. Tie the roast with cooking twine and pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a large, heavy bottomed stockpot until oil is shimmering. Place the roast in pot and sear until a nice dark brown develops on all four side, 8-10 minutes. Reduce the heat if there is too much smoke and add more oil if meat is very lean and the bottom of the pan dries out. Transfer the roast to a clean plate and add the onions, diced carrots, celery, and mushrooms. Sautee until the vegetables start to brown, stirring occasionally, 8-10 minutes. Add the garlic, cooking until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the broth and water, scraping up the bottom of the pan. Return the roast to the pan and any juices that have accumulated. Turn the temperature up and bring to a boil. Add the thyme, cover the top with foil and then place the lid on top. Place the pot in the oven and cook for 3 ½ – 4 hours. Every 30 minutes turn the roast over on each side.

After about 2 ½ hours add the sliced carrots and the turnips. Making sure that the vegetables are submerged in the cooking liquid.

When the roast is tender remove the pot from the oven and remove the roast from the pot. Tent the roast with foil and remove the carrot slices and turnips. If a lot of fat has accumulated, skim from the top. Then place the pot on the stove and reduce the cooking liquid to about 1 ½ cups. Add the red wine and reduce a few more minutes.

Cut the string from the roast and slice it into 1-inch pieces. Arrange the roast and the vegetables on a warmed serving platter. Serve with horseradish cream and sauce.

Horseradish Cream

¾ cup sour cream

2 finely chopped green onions

1-2 tablespoons (or more) prepared horseradish

Mix all together and serve with roast elk.

Cinnamon-Cardamom Frozen Yogurt

(adapted from Mark Bittman’s Basic Vanilla Frozen Yogurt)

1 ½ cups whole milk

3 cardamom pods

1 cinnamon stick

¾ cups sugar

4 egg yolks

2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt

Heat the milk in a pan with the cinnamon stick and cardamom pods, until just barely warm. Place a lid on the pan and let seep for 30 minutes. Discard cinnamon and cardamom pods. Add half the sugar, heat until steam barely rises, stirring to dissolve the sugar.

Meanwhile beat the egg yolks and other half of sugar with a pinch of salt until light yellow and very thick. Slowly add a little of the warmed milk, whisking constantly so as not to cook the eggs. Adding more milk continue to whisk until all the milk has been add. Transfer the mixture back into the pan and place on the stove over low-medium heat, stir constantly until thickened. Remove from heat and stain through a mesh sieve to remove any cooked egg.

Place the bowl on an ice bath to cool, about 20-30 minutes. Once the custard is cool add the yogurt and whisk together. Place the yogurt mixture in an ice cream maker and allow to mix for about 25-30 minutes. Remove from the tub and store in a freezer safe container for at least 2 hours before serving. If the frozen yogurt becomes too hard to serve leave at room temperature for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Serve with orange slices, pistachios, honey, or any desired topping.