Better under pressure

Old-fashioned cooking methods such as pressure cooking and pickling are making a comeback

By Anthea Gerrie, November 22, 2012

Did you know that you can make chicken soup in a under an hour? And not from a packet, but authentic, clear soup made from raw meat and fresh vegetables and herbs, ready to go in 30 minutes.

No, this is not an example of the kitchen wizardry practised by the likes of Heston Blumenthal. It is not even achieved using a now relatively old-fashioned microwave oven.
The magic is created by a piece of kitchen kit once favoured by our bubbes — the pressure cooker.
Pressure cooking was all the rage in the 1950s and 1960s. Those who grew up then will remember perhaps with a shiver that hissing pan in bubbe’s kitchen. It was a fearsome bit of kit, even if the lid never actually flew off.

As with many kitchen gadgets of the moment, after an initial burst of popularity, many pressure cookers found their way, via the garage shelf, to car boot sales and charity shops all over the country. Recently however, pressure cooking and other old-fashioned cooking methods have seen a return to favour.

Modern pressure cookers, such as those made by Fissler and WMF, are practically foolproof, and so long as you learn to close the lid properly and open it carefully, they are simple to use. Once locked on, the lid creates an airtight seal to suppress the steam created when food heats up. Liquid boils at a much higher temperature than 100°C. This higher temperature and the large amount of steam that builds in the pot reduces cooking time. A casserole made with cubed lamb shoulder, for instance, can be cooked in an unlikely 20 minutes as opposed to the usual 90 plus.

In practice, the 20 minutes is actually 30, as there is also a bit of time to wait for the cooker to reach pressure, plus extra time to brown the meat and season with spices. Vegetables added after the pressure has subsided will cook in just three further minutes.

And for that speedy chicken soup, you would still need 10 minutes to bring the chicken and vegetable-filled water to the boil and skim it, but within 30 minutes of the pan coming to pressure, you will indeed have rich golden stock.

This is not the only haimische dish that can be whipped up this way. Catherine Phipps, author of The Pressure Cooker Cookbook, says: “Salt beef pressure-cooks in 45-60 minutes instead at least two-and-a-half hours in a conventional pan.” And dried beans and pulses can even be cooked without soaking allowing for an impromptu bean and barley soup.

Pressure cooking is not the only old-fashioned cooking process making a comeback. Pickling has long been a tradition for Jewish cooks over the centuries. Cucumbers, red and white cabbage and onions were all pickled for storage over the winter.

For our ancestors in the old country, bottling a glut of fruit and vegetables was essential to see the family through a hard winter when anything but root vegetables was hard to find.

Le Parfait, makers of retro-style glass preserving jars with rubber seals, has revived this method but with a difference. Food is cooked in jars submerged for up to an hour in boiling water, allowing not just vegetables to be made safe to store outside the fridge but also fish or meat.

This method is not without its drawbacks — jars must first be washed and air-dried and their rubber seals scalded. You also need a saucepan large enough to line with a tea-towel and fit the jars so they won’t bang into each other.

So why would you bother when you could just make and freeze the fish or meat dish and buy your fruit fresh?
The benefit is releasing freezer space — and making the most of fruit or vegetables with a shorter season, like quince. Also, the jars filled with home-cooked food are attractive to display and can be stored for up to a year during which time the flavours improve. The method allows you to create unusual and interesting recipes, which are tasty as well as attractive to look at.

One Le Parfait recipe layers salmon fillets with raw fennel, shallots, preserved lemons and dill sprigs, topped up with olive oil, all of which are sterilised in an hour.

With less time to cook than ever and food costs increasing, it is no surprise we are looking backwards for inspiration.

Last updated: 12:24pm, November 22 2012