How to Make Friends With Your Pressure Cooker
‘I’m scared of that thing,’ says my friend Michele as she looks at me with wide, brown eyes from underneath her hairnet.
She’s staring at the heavy, stainless steel pressure cooker on the stove with its odd assortment of dials and latches. I give my hair-netted head a shake.
“Don’t be a sissy. Trust me. You wanted to learn — you’ve got to be the master of the pressure.”
Michele is someone who lives alone with one tiny frying pan, one wooden spoon and a small assortment of dishes. She makes Marie Kondo look like a hoarder.
Michele doesn’t really like to cook but her love of my homemade cabbage rolls drove her to ask me how to make them.
We’ve been friends for years and I know this pressure cooker is making her ass clench.
She wants to impress her sisters when they arrive next week. I secretly wonder if she will have to buy extra cutlery.
Her cabbage roll making class with a pressure cooker has begun.
This is one serious piece of kitchen equipment that makes most home cooks shiver with fear. They are afraid it will blow like a bomb.
Those old horror stories keep people away from experiencing the gourmet fast food only a pressure cooker can deliver — delicious flavor-infused food cooked three times faster than normal.
And there’s nothing like it to make any tough piece of meat bend to your will.
Thankfully, I come from a long line of fearless pioneer women who never let a little pressure stop them from getting good food quickly to the table.
My seventy-year-old, 5’ foot petite mother still works with a pressure cooker as easily as most people operate a hot air popcorn maker.
“Do it right. No one dies,” my mom says laughing.
She knows. Years ago, one of her friends accidentally blew an old-style cooker and she had hot chicken broth spray at geyser speed and egg noodles hanging from the ceiling.
My mom loves telling that story.
Michele and I core two pale green wrinkled Savoy cabbage beauties and gently steam them in large pots filled with water — just until the leaves are soft and pliable but not yet cooked.
These wrinkly leaves are my favorite as they have extra flexibility for wrapping the meat filling.
I set them aside to cool and their delicate fragrance quickly fills my kitchen.
In a large stainless steel bowl, I mix four pounds of regular ground beef with uncooked rice, salt, pepper, and my newest cheater move — long squeezes of garlic paste I picked up from a local Italian market.
“Don’t over-mix the meat as it will become tough,” as I wave my wooden spoon in the air, “and absolutely never use lean ground beef as you need fat for a lighter-texture.”
I take one of the wrinkled leaves and lie it flat on the cutting board.
Michele looks like a little kid getting ready to decorate a gingerbread house.
I place two golf ball-sized balls of meat inside the cabbage leaf and make them cylindrical. And then the fun begins.
“It’s like wrapping a present. You want all the sides tucked in so the meat doesn’t escape during cooking. You don’t want footballs as they’ll be too dense. You don’t want them too small as they’ll turn to mush. Shoot for medium-sized ones.”
As I’m talking my hands are wrapping, rolling and turning. “Don’t roll them too tightly as the meat needs to expand.”
She catches on quick and soon we’re layering the rolls almost to the ¾ marker inside the pot. Pressure cookers require room for liquid and steam so you can’t overfill it.
“Damn, you’re fast,” she laughs as I outpace her four to one.
A can of diced Italian tomatoes is poured over the rolls waiting patiently side by side. Finally, the top layer is a full can of wine-fermented sauerkraut.
I swing the heavy pot to the stove and show Michele the interlocking lid and how it connects with the grooves on the pot and how the handle moves sideways to also lock.
“This sucker is like Fort Knox. As the pot heats and the steam pressure builds — two other steel locks will automatically bolt the lid down. Nothing is getting in or out.”
I place the rocker weight on the little metal stem on the top of the lid. This rocks back and forth once the ten-pound pressure builds up in the pot.
“The secret to cooking with this thing is to listen to it like a metronome. Too much rocking and “chchchchchch”means- it is too hot. If it is moving too slow — chhhhhhhhhh chhhhhhhhh — it isn’t hot enough. Shoot for a steady “chhh-chh-chh.” And then cook it for thirty minutes from the time it makes the sound you like.”
Michele stares at me and raises her eyebrows.
“Cooking by sound. I thought I’d heard it all.’’
Thirty minutes and one glass of wine after I’ve found the magic sound — I pull the pot from the stove and let it slowly cool down.
As the pot cools, the pressure recedes which automatically pulls down the steel bolts.
Cabbage roll newbie is hovering right over my shoulder.
“Lift the lid dammit -I want to see!”
I turn the handle sideways with a large click and lift the lid. And there they are. Our gourmet cabbage roll soldiers waiting under a pile of sauerkraut-goodness.
“That smells so good we need to eat them right now!” says Michele.
So, we grab forks and do just that. They are succulent, juicy and tender mixed with an alchemical blend of cabbage-beef-garlic-tomato-mellow-sauerkraut. This is peasant food at its finest.
“These are fricking mind-blowing,” says my student.
Later, after we’ve stuffed ourselves with cabbage rolls and mashed potatoes– I present her with one of my pressure cookers that is a little smaller. It’s twenty years old but she has life in her yet.
Michele takes it like I’ve given her an ancient Japanese sword.
I tell her,
“You’re now officially in the pressure cooker club. Don’t blow it.”
P.S. Michele’s sisters thought she was Julia Child.