May 18, 2009 at 4:44PM
by Alexandra Zissu
I often hear from parents wanting to know if one jarred food is better than another. Other than always suggesting families choose organic over conventional, I have no jar preferences. The boiled within an inch of whatever nutrients might be left mush in any jar is often older than the very kid parents are trying to feed. The best thing I can say about jarred food is that the empty jars can be reused as excellent first drinking glasses for children. It should come as no surprise that I'm a big advocate of homemade baby food, toddler food, kid food, teenage food, and adult food.
"But it takes too much time," is the near constant refrain I hear from many of the people seeking my advice on what and how to feed their children. Eh - not so much. It's all about what you spend your time on. There are a lot of things I'd happily give up in order to make our food. Still, I have more than a few time (and, coincidentally, energy) cutting tricks up my sleeve I employ. I help myself always have the makings of a meal on hand by pre-prepping future dishes as I cook other meals. For example, whenever I have the oven on baking or roasting something for a meal (say, potatoes), I fill it with extra items that can be used in upcoming days (say, winter squash to puree into a soup, or beets to chop up and put in a salad).
These are items that take time - often an hour or so - to bake. Which is why doubling up is crucial. The only way to cut their cooking time is by using a pressure cooker. I've suggested them to people for years, and have had others suggest them to me. But to be totally honest, I've had only ever seen them demo-ed and had never experimented with one. Until this past weekend.
A little back story: I have a small, space challenged kitchen. Any gadget I buy and make enough room to house needs to be something I'm truly going to use, and use often. So I'm always hesitant to buy new (or second hand) kitchen gear. Testing a pressure cooker to see if I would use it has been on my to do list for years. It shot to the top recently because I've been soaking dried beans and boiling them rather than buying canned in an effort to avoid BPA lined cans. (In a pinch, Eden Organic does use a BPA-free liner for beans.) Boiling can take an hour or more, and requires paying attention. I cannot tell you how many times the water has boiled off leaving me slightly burned beans and a crusty pot - especially with lentils.
Then a chef friend mentioned that he makes garbanzo beans - one of my daughter's favorite snacks - in eight minutes in his pressure cooker. This is something that takes me well over an hour on the stove top. And it got me thinking about the energy savings as well as the time savings. And if they're this easy to make, I'll make them all of the time and my daughter will eat them all of the time. They're extremely good for her - and for us. And it will make me more likely to make my own hummus. I finally had to try it myself.
So I posted on my local parent board for people willing to lend me a pressure cooker for a few days. Within an hour, I had my pick of three cookers, all within a 15 minute walk from my apartment. I picked up the closest one and got to work.
You need to follow the manufacturers suggestions for the specific model you have to know how many pounds of pressure you're actually working with. Unfortunately, I didn't think to ask my generous lenders if I could borrow their booklets, too.
But it was easy enough to experiment, especially as the woman I borrowed the cooker from had thoughtfully sent me a link to a how-to-use-a-pressure cooker YouTube video. I soaked the beans overnight, and pressure cooked them for five minutes. They were a little crunchy so I put them back in for about another three to five minutes. And they were perfect! Often after an hour-plus on the stove top they're mushy/mealy but these were almost al dente.
Two other things - when shopping for a pressure cooker, choose stainless steel over aluminum. And be prepared for grandparents to be nervous when you tell them what you're up to. Old pressure cookers were known to blow up. Today's models aren't your parents' versions. They have safety valves and locks and are safe to use.
I'm now in the market for my own pressure cooker and as much as I am looking forward to fast summer lentil salads, I have a feeling it will be my most used kitchen gadget in the late fall when my CSA root vegetables
-- rutabagas, carrots, winter squash -- are so large it takes hours to roast them in the oven. Having to think too far ahead for a meal, or to not be able to whip something up quickly for a hungry kid is exactly the sort of thing that makes families reach for the ease of packaged goods. I sound like a 1950s housewife but I'm excited about having something in my kitchen that can produce good home made food in a fraction of regular oven or stove top time. I can't wait to start experimenting further.