Free food. I can now sniff it out from blocks away. Hear the murmur of distant small-talk? There must be "light snacks" nearby. But, what free food lacks in price, it also lacks in variety. Bagels, cookies, cold pizza... finishing off with Ramen when I get home at night. I sought a better way, and I found it.
Through introspection, I've found that I judge my food choices by just a few criteria:
- Calories per dollar
- Nutritional value
- Preparation time
- Number of discernible ingredients
Noticeably, these are all met by an all-you-can-eat buffet (e.g., dining hall). But, we need an option for home.
Enter the pressure cooker: a popular cooking tool in much of the world, and even with our grandparents, but almost un-heard of by US'ian 20-somethings. It can cook meals in as little as 10% of the time of a normal cooking pot.
A pressure cooker is a strong tightly-enclosed pot with a regulated pressure-release valve. It cooks like a normal pot until the water starts to boil. Then, pressure builds up to a steady-state value of (usually) 15 psi (compared to the surrounding air), which is maintained by the pressure regulator (often, simply a weight placed on a hollow stem on the top of the pressure cooker, which is pushed up by pressure above 15 psi, releasing steam). This is the crucial point: at 15 PSI, water boils at 257 F (125 C), instead of the usual 212 F (100 C). Because most chemical reactions go exponentially with temperature, this small difference leads to drastically reduced cooking times.
There are many pressure cookers on the market. They perform very similarly. Some have weighted pressure regulators, while others are spring-regulated. Some are even electronic. I say: go with a cheap, simple, and reputable one. I got mine from walmart for around $25, and I've used it every ~4 days for 2 years. It holds about 6 quarts. You can always trade up from there.
To re-iterate: Here are the benefits of a pressure-cooker
A pressure cooker allows you to cook huge (6 quarts!) quantities of food (cheap food, e.g. bean soup or cheap beef) in a very short time (compared to a slow-cooker, grill, or saucepan). And, it tastes just as good in 1 hour as if you'd spent 8 hours cooking traditionally.
Overall approach, and common ingredients
Pressure cookers are versatile, but they excel at ingredients which are slow to cook. For instance, you could cook raw chicken in 3 minutes instead of 15 minutes, but that's not my angle. My primary pressure-cooking ingredients are beans (see below), or cheap meats that tenderize upon long cooking: corned beef, beef brisket, and other cheap beef or pork cuts made for slow-cooking. These meats are fatty cuts that disintegrate into loose, tender morsels over time--perfect for pulled-pork sandwiches or juicy pot roasts (you can pour off the fat if it concerns you). As far as vegetables, I stay away from fragile plants like broccoli or peas--they're better done in a steamer. But, the pressure cooker is great for long jobs like mashed potatoes or cabbage. Alternatively, if I roast a chicken, I'll throw its remains in the pressure cooker and pulverize the hell out of it for an hour. Strain it, and it makes delicious soup stock. That would take you a day without a pressure cooker.
The approach is this: Add your ingredients, plus ~1/2 inch of water at the bottom (which will boil off). Hit it on "high" until the pressure cooker starts to make noise (first a hissing, then a "taht-taht-taht" rhythmic sound. Once you hear that sound, you are "pressure-cooking"; times in pressure cooking recipes refer to the length of time you hear that sound, not the time since you turned the stove on. Turn it down to medium-medium-low, and let it gently hiss until everything's cooked. Run cold water over the pressure cooker to stop the cooking and release the pressure (the pressure is released when you hear an abrupt "gurgling" noise), and check for doneness. Most ingredients cook about 5x faster in a pressure cooker than in a simmering pot, though there is some variation.
This is standard 15-bean soup, great by itself, on crackers, or on toasted bread. Here are my ingedients (it's flexible, based on what I forgot to get at the store, and what's on sale.)
1 lb 15-bean soup (or similar).
8 oz bacon, cut to ½"x1/2" squares
~4 oz tomato paste
2 cans diced tomatoes
1 cube chicken boullion
2 large onions
Spices (salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, garlic, thyme, "seasoning salt")
In pressure cooker, add the bean mix and tomato paste (the tomato paste helps to keep the beans whole while they cook; without it, they tend to split). Add water (~4 cups; I've never measured it. Just cover the beans, plus ~2 inches.) Bring to a boil, then cover with lid and pressure regulator, and cook for ~20 minutes.
In separate saucepan or skillet, sautee bacon, onions, and (optionally) garlic. Feel free to keep most of the grease--it'll still be a pretty healthy meal.
After the beans are cooked for 20 minutes, add the bacon-onion-garlic mix, and add the can (or two) of diced tomatoes. Simmer, stirring well, and taste it. Add salt, pepper, etc., until you're happy with it. Congrats: You now have an incredibly nutritious (depending on how you prepped it, it may be high in saturated fat, but it's much better than your normal grad school diet) meal that will give you a good 8 servings, for under $10.
Don't underestimate the nutrition of this meal: it has tons of vitamins, unbelievable amounts of fiber, a wide range of micronutrients, and (depending on how you deal with the bacon grease) it can be low in fat. Feel free to substitute ham for bacon, ignore the meat altogether, or add interesting new spices.
Cajun Red Beans and Rice
This is a classic Cajun meal, usually served on Mondays, although my preparation is a bit unorthodox (mostly due to the tomato):
1.5 lb small red beans
2 medium onions
1 green pepper
4 stalks celery
~ 1 lb bacon, ham, or other flavorful meat
1-2 cans diced tomatoes or 6 oz. tomato paste (the unconventional part)
Spices (traditionally: garlic, cayenne pepper, salt, black pepper, thyme, sage, rosemary)
6 cups cooked basmati rice (any rice is fine, but I love basmati)
You could spend forever cooking this meal, but this is my method:
1) In the pressure cooker (uncovered), quickly fry the meat, garlic, celery, onions, and green pepper (all finely chopped) to bring out their flavor.
2) When the veggies are translucent and odorous, add the red beans (NOT THE TOMATOES), and water to cover the ingredients plus ~2 inches.
3) Pressure cook as long as you want; I usually go an hour or more. You want to cook the crap out of these ingredients; they will be almost indiscernible. Keep the heat low enough that the ingredients are cooked without burning (you want a bit of hissing, maybe a little gyration of the pressure regulator if it's the weighted type, but nothing more).
4) When the cooking's done, mash most of the hardly-recognizable red beans against the side of the pot with a whisk or large spoon. Continue cooking; the mixture will become pasty; mashing the beans gives you the nice pasty consistency, but for visual and textural reasons you'll want some remaining whole beans.
5) Add the tomatoes, taste, and add seasoning. This dish needs to have some serious zing to it.
Serve on rice. I recommend Basmati--it's a brilliant strain of rice. All of this dish's ingredients are cheap, and to top it off, it's served on rice (one of the cheapest source of calories, unless you're going to eat cattle corn). But, it's still very nutritious. I doubt that one could cook a decent stir-fry, no matter how expensive or elaborate, that is more nutritious than red beans and rice.
Mashed Potatoes: Proceed as usual (cut up potatoes into ~eighths, and cover in as much water as possible); but, instead of simmering for 1 to 1.5 hours, just pressure-cook for 20 minutes.
Corned beef: Cut beef brisket (perpendicularly to the grain) at ~1 inch intervals. Pressure cook (with ~ ½ inch water) for 45 minutes. Remove cover; add veggies (cabbage, carrots, potatoes, etc) and simmer for 30 minutes, or pressure cook for about 10 additional minutes.
Pulled pork: Pressure cook (with at least ½ inch water) the cheapest pork roast possible (remove the enclosing "net" if applicable; it's hard to do afterwards) for about 1.5 hours. Let it cool down, and just massage the meat with your hands. Wash your hands, add a good amount of cheap honey barbecue sauce... you now pulled pork BBQ which will go great on a bun.
Conclusion, and Important Points
My pressure cooker has changed my culinary life--it's made real, nutritious, great-tasting food possible for me, at nearly the price of Ramen noodles. Here are some final pointers:
- Just do it. Experiment. These meals are cheap enough and fast enough that you don't need to worry about it.
- Add a splash of lemon juice (tip courtesy of Alton Brown) to recover some of the zest that's lost with the high temperatures of pressure cooking.
- Don't be afraid to stop cooking by putting the pressure cooker under cold water quite often, especially when you're beginning. Better to undercook than overcook--you can cook more, but you can never go back.
I'd love to hear anyone else's favorite pressure cooker recipes.