Lorna Sass makes me think about pressure cooking

Last Saturday, John-Paul and I meant to hear Gordon Edgar talk about his book Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge at Ominvore Books on Food. Turns out I noted the wrong date on my calendar. Gordon’s talk is this Saturday, April 3, at Omnivore (Church and Cesar Chavez). I can’t make it, but you should.

Instead, we found ourselves listening to Lorna Sass talk at Omnivore–which was serendipitous, because she’s a pressure cooking guru, and we’ve been debating the merits of slow cookers versus pressure cookers. We spend a lot of time talking about using dried beans, for the usual reasons: they’re cheap and lightweight compared to canned. (Lightweight is especially important when you live an uphill bike ride from the grocery.) But of course we use canned a lot more often. Diner chili? A can of pinto, a can of black. J-P’s Tasty Beans and Greens? There goes a can of cannelini. I’ve even been known to make refritos from canned pinto beans–even though I often wish there were, there’s just somehow never a batch of frijoles de olla on my stove, waiting to be mashed and fried.

Lorna Sass might have convinced us that a pressure cooker is key to changing our ways. We especially like the flexibility that a pressure cooker offers over a slow cooker: with a pressure cooker, you don’t have to commit to your dinner menu until dinner time. This fits our temperaments better than the slow cooker’s demand that you decide on dinner in the morning (perhaps another reason we rarely get around to cooking dried beans).

At the start of her talk, Lorna asked how many people in the audience were scared of pressure cookers, and no hands went up. She was excited to face a room full of converts–but we weren’t. Only a few hands went up at her next question: How many of you use pressure cookers?

John-Paul said later that it was the wrong question. We’re not scared of pressure cookers because most of us haven’t used them–giving us no opportunity to see them blow their tops. I do remember my dad talking about his fear of pressure cookers when I was a kid, but I don’t remember him ever using one in our kitchen. The pressure cooker, at least in the U.S., might make a good study in how ways of doing things are forgotten over time. People my dad’s age knew and used pressure cookers, but they stopped, and now my cohort and I know about pressure cookers, but most of us have never used one. Soon, our society’s knowledge of them is only in print or video.

Outside of the U.S., they’re much more common and not feared. Our Brazilian friend Cristina wonders how we would make beans without a pressure cooker, and his South Asian friend Madhavi teases J-P for not using one. Lorna Sass talked about seeing them used extensively in India and France, and described a video in which a Latin American woman made ropa vieja in a pressure cooker for the appreciative but wary staff of Gourmet. A person in front of us at the talk referred, sotto voce, to pressure cookers as “the Third World microwave,” which seemed to me a perfect Americanism for it. (France of course belonging to the “Third World.”)

By the way, Lorna Sass’s best advice for using a pressure cooker? Don’t turn the heat up to high and go walk the dog. That’s a sure recipe for Supper a la Ceiling.

13 Responses to “Lorna Sass makes me think about pressure cooking”

  1. 1 Kelli
    March 30, 2010 at 12:37

    France may as well be third world — they have no Mexican food! I don’t know how I survived there for so long.

    • March 30, 2010 at 16:21

      Robb Walsh seems to think it was a big thing in Paris a few years ago–but you were elsewhere, right?

      • 3 Kelli
        March 30, 2010 at 20:56

        I was in Paris pretty much all of last fall, so just a few months ago. I concede that there may have been Mexican food way out of my price range, hidden away somewhere I couldn’t find it. But definitely nowhere that I could have lunch a couple times a week. I didn’t realize what a big part of my diet tacos and burritos had become until they were nowhere to be found. I couldn’t even find fake Taco Bell-esque stuff.

        From what I’ve read, I think there was a very brief Mexican phase, but it didn’t stick.

  2. 4 amber
    March 30, 2010 at 13:56

    Pressure cookers are a requisite kitchen item in South Asia, it’s rare to find a kitchen without one.

    I was scared of them when I was a kid — I think that in earlier eras, there were more safety concerns. These days most are built with safety mechanisms making explosions extremely rare.

    I use mine just about every other day to cook beans which are one of the daily staples of our diet.

    What clever inventions they are too — energy efficient! Taking only 10 minutes of stove time instead of 90 minutes or more to cook a pot of chickpeas for example. I highly recommend investing in one. I can’t imagine living without one any more.

  3. March 30, 2010 at 15:49

    my roommate recently got a pressure cooker, and we made some very nice beets.

  4. March 30, 2010 at 17:14

    My mother-in-law bought us one, which doubles as a big pasta/veggie pot and yeah, I had never even thought of it exploding because of the venting mechanism. But I didn’t have too much contact with them in days of yore. It’s really great for beans and soups — my wife is a champ at putting stuff together and making it work. I think we have the Fagor 8-quart duo number on Amazon. And re: dried beans, I don’t think my wife knew beans came in cans until she met me (and didn’t know they came dried) — but now we do only dried because they are SO much cheaper).

  5. 9 doug
    March 30, 2010 at 18:22

    Finally, a blog that caters to my interests!

    Can’t wait to read more. -d

  6. March 31, 2010 at 08:04

    I’ve been using an Innova 8-quart pressure cooker for about 7 years now. I am not a power-user, as I tend to use it primarily to cook dried beans in preparation for other recipes, rather than make the recipe in the pressure cooker.

    This particular pressure cooker comes with a couple of weights so that you can adjust the pressure (5#, 10#, and 15#) — something I should pay more attention to, as trying to make split pea soup with the 15# weight often leads to complete mush. Different beans can withstand different temperatures: chickpeas will hold up to just about anything.

    I got it for some of the same reasons you mention: dried beans are cheaper and lighter than canned. Also: fast cooking times. I really like it.

  7. April 1, 2010 at 04:24

    Esther! What a funny coincedence that you wrote this, I just got back from France. I was scared of all the pressure cookers there at first, because a friend here had a nasty burn from accidently spilling her cooker while canning. BUT it was super easy to get used to and saved a Mexican dinner I was making for some friends there after forgetting to soak the beans long enough! It was good and totally last minute.

    On a side note, even with this amazing device, it was hard for me to find raw beets at markets! All pre-cooked. When I asked, people said it was because they took to long to cook. Quoi? (it’s also an easy way to sell gnarly beets, even with the extra work, I heard)

    hooray for food / labor blogging!

  8. April 1, 2010 at 07:40

    Welcome back, Sarah! We’re going to have to find some time for you to tell me about your time in France. Are you in Boston, or somewhere else?

    And you’ve reminded me that I was thinking about the ways I’ve noticed farmers at the markets here getting the most out of their plants.

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