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.

Venison: Roast and Sugo

A plateful of happiness.

One of our 2011 New Year’s resolutions was to go vegetarian for the first few months of the year. That ended on January 2, actually, really on January 1 when we took the deer roast out of the freezer to thaw. We do eat meat, and love it, but we also understand all the health and environmental issues associated with eating too much meat–extra weight, exposure to hormones and antibiotics, pollution and waste, the cruelty of CAFOS, etc. But in our defense, we received a cooler full of wild venison and pheasant meat compliments of Steve’s father and we found a great recipe from Cook’s Illustrated (CI) called “Really Good Pot Roast” that we wanted to try. Also, we’re foodies that like to eat, cook, and…well, there’s always next year.

Pot roast and polenta. A good, stick to your ribs, Sunday dinner.

The CI recipe we found comes from their November/December 2010 magazine for Classic Pot Roast. We followed the recipe almost exactly with three minor (or major) modifications: we used a deer roast instead of the traditional beef roast; cranberry juice instead of red wine (we’re on the wagon for a few months); and we added a little soy sauce at the end to give it a little extra umami. The results were a mixed bag. While we liked the roast, it was falling apart when we cut into it and presentation wasn’t what we expected. It probably would have been better had we left it overnight in the fridge and then served it the next day, but then the question arose, “What should we have for dinner tonight?” We decided on the roast. It was served with a nice portion of polenta and a sauté of mustard greens. The dinner was great in spite of the roast being a bit too crumbly. The sauce though had an intense sweetness to it that would not have been there if we had just used wine. It wasn’t a bad flavor, just sweet. The soy sauce really helped give the sauce what it was missing.

The next night, the roast really had its moment in the spotlight. We let the leftover roast sit in the sauce over night. The next day we shredded the roast and heated it with the sauce. Using our favorite Trader Joe’s Pappardelle pasta as the base, we dressed the pasta with the warmed sauce. Incredible! Not only did it stretched our meat consumption by four more meals, it also made for a great sugo. We’ll definitely be making this roast again but instead of a traditional Sunday roast we’ll just use the shredded meat sauce and pasta. This way we still get our meat but not so much all at once.

Classic Pot Roast a la Cook’s Illustrated

Cook’s Illustrated’s  recommended beef broth is Rachael Ray Stock-in-a-Box Beef Flavored Stock (a mouthful even before taking the first bite!) but we like using our own homemade broth. Chilling the whole cooked pot roast overnight improves its flavor and makes it moister and easier to slice or shred; for instructions, see “Make-Ahead Pot Roast.”

Pot roast: Before and after.

1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) boneless beef chuck-eye roast , pulled into two pieces at natural seam and trimmed of large knobs of fat (or if you’re lucky, deer, elk, or other venison roast)
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium onions , halved and sliced thin (about 2 cups)
1 large carrot , chopped medium (about 1 cup)
1 celery rib , chopped medium (about 3/4 cup)
2 medium garlic cloves , minced or pressed through garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
1 cup beef broth , plus 1 to 2 cups for sauce (see note)
1/2 cup dry red wine , plus 1/4 cup for sauce (for our version we used cranberry juice)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 sprig plus 1/4 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
Ground black pepper
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon soy sauce (our altered addition)

1. Sprinkle pieces of meat with 1 tablespoon salt (1½ teaspoons if using table salt), place on wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet, and let stand at room temperature 1 hour.

2. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Heat butter in heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium heat. When foaming subsides, add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and beginning to brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add carrot and celery; continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes longer. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in 1 cup broth, ½ cup wine (or juice), tomato paste, bay leaf, and thyme sprig; bring to simmer.

3. Pat beef dry with paper towels and season generously with pepper. Using 3 pieces of kitchen twine, tie each piece of meat into loaf shape for even cooking.

4. Nestle meat on top of vegetables. Cover pot tightly with large piece of foil and cover with lid; transfer pot to oven. Cook beef for three hours flipping halfway through cooking. Continue cooking until beef is fully tender and sharp knife easily slips in and out of meat, about 30 minutes to 1 hour.

5. Transfer roasts to cutting board and tent loosely with foil. Strain liquid through mesh strainer into 4-cup liquid measuring cup. Discard bay leaf and thyme sprig. Transfer vegetables to blender jar. Allow liquid to settle 5 minutes, then skim any fat off surface. Add beef broth as necessary to bring liquid amount to 3 cups. Place liquid in blender with vegetables and blend until smooth, about 2 minutes. Transfer sauce to medium saucepan and bring to simmer over medium heat.

6. While sauce heats, remove twine from roast and slice against grain into ½-inch-thick slices. Transfer meat to large serving platter. Stir chopped thyme, remaining ¼ cup wine, and vinegar into sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon half of sauce over meat; pass remaining sauce separately.

7. (For Sugo): Cool and refrigerate the roast and sauce together. The next day using either your hands or two forks, shred the roast in the sauce. Prepare your favorite pappardelle pasta according to the package directions, (or make your own pasta). While the pasta cooks, re-warm the sugo in a sauce pan. When the pasta is al dente, transfer it to the sauce. Finish the pasta in the sauce, tossing it so every noodle is coated. Off the heat, grate parmesan cheese and drizzle some good olive oil over the top.