Food & Drink

Put those Christmas gift gadgets to work in the kitchen

Baked apples are easy to make in a pressure cooker.
Baked apples are easy to make in a pressure cooker. www.hippressurecooking.com

Let’s assume that the people closest to you know about your interest in cooking and decided to get you something for Christmas that you will put to use in the kitchen.

The best tools are the ones you use the most, save you plenty of time and help make what you’re cooking taste as delicious as possible.

In the ’90s, one of the hottest-selling gadgets was the bread machine – everybody had one, everybody made decent bread with ease and, eventually, every yard sale tried to unload one. Slow cookers could be headed for a similar fate.

That’s because there are newer, and in many cases, better tools for the job. Call them gadgets if you want, but the pressure cooker, sous vide immersion circulator and a high-powered blender like the beloved Vitamix just might be the gifts that keep on giving.

In all three cases, they emphasize precision, convenience and efficiency. And many cooking enthusiasts are catching on.

This past Christmas, the Instant Pot, an electric pressure cooker that boasts additional features, blew the doors off Amazon, becoming the top seller in all categories and breaking the record on Amazon Prime Day (when deep discounts are offered).

While pressure cooking recipes abound online, scores of new users eventually wind up at hippressurecooking.com, where Laura Pazzaglia, an American based in Italy, has established herself as an authority on the appliance and a wizard with creating recipes. She’s also the author of “Hip Pressure Cooking: Fast, Fresh, and Flavorful.”

“I’m seeing people more interested in taking control of their food and diets, yet wanting to spend less time and effort to do it,” Pazzaglia said. “This trend started with the crockpot but has evolved into multi- and pressure cooking thanks to the introduction of high-quality electric pressure cookers. Plus, electric pressure cookers, in particular, are taking over the home appliance market because, now, they do more than just pressure cook.”

You no longer need a dedicated rice cooker if you have an Instant Pot or other electric pressure cooker, like the Breville Fast Slow Pro or Fagor LUX, because there is a rice setting that works perfectly. They even have a slow cooker setting, although that style of cooking is losing popularity.

A big appeal of the electric pressure, said Pazzaglia, is how easy it is to use.

“Stove top pressure cookers require lots of tinkering and adjustments at the beginning of pressure cooking and their history is riddled with mishaps,” she said. “Someone has to be really committed to wanting to learn to pressure cook to not give up after the first few recipes. Electric pressure cookers toss that struggle out the window. Now, all of the tinkering and adjustments are made by the machine, so all the cook has to do is put in the food and push a button.”

Once you hit that button, the cooking is worry-free. Go for a walk, hit the gym, take a nap. When the food is done cooking, it will switch to a warming setting until you’re ready to eat.

If you’re looking to ratchet up your skills, Pazzaglia has a free online pressure cooking school with plenty of instructional videos and related materials that can be printed out.

Sous vide cooking is also convenient and largely worry-free. It was just a few years ago that sous vide (literally, under pressure) was synonymous with high-end, modernist cuisine at some of the world’s finest restaurants. The production of affordable, user-friendly models such as the Anova Precision Cooker Joule Sous Vide by ChefSteps created an explosion of interest from devoted home cooks.

Sous vide cooking sounds esoteric, but the idea is surprising simple. You use the actual gadget – basically a long cylinder with a heating coil – to set the water at a specific temperature. That’s essentially the temperature at which you want to cook the food. For example, if you want a medium-rare steak, you’d preheat the water to 135-140 degrees Fahrenheit. The meat (or sometimes vegetables and sauces) is placed in a food-safe plastic bag (like a freezer bag) or vacuum-sealed bag. If you’re not vacuum sealing, submerging most of the bag in water, with a small opening at the closure, will create a similar seal. Clip the bag to the rim of the pot and you’re cooking. The steak will cook to the set temperature but no more, meaning you can cook it longer without overcooking. For most meats, you then finish with a pan sear or broil.

While these devices are terrific, if you don’t have one, you can still attempt sous vide recipes. All you need is a pot of water, an instant-read thermometer and a little luck – you’ll need to keep the temperature as consistent as possible.

Don’t get fooled by the one- to four-hour cooking times in the sous vide pork chop recipe here. That’s up to four hours submerged in a temperature-regulated bath – time you could use to play a round of golf or go shopping. And if you get stuck on the course or snarled in traffic, you won’t overcook the food. The pork, in this case, will remain at the temperature you set and won’t wind up dry and tough the way it would if you left it in the oven too long. In fact, some Michelin-starred restaurants have been known to sous vide pork belly for up to 60 hours.

J. Kenji López-Alt, author of the book “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science,” is a big proponent of sous vide, especially for pork chops and chicken breasts.

“A good pork chop is only as good as the method by which you cook it. You want the most foolproof way to guarantee extra-juicy pork chops? Sous vide is the way to go,” López-Alt writes on SeriousEats.com. Visit the website for a cooking temperature chart and several more sous vide recipes.

As for the Vitamix, Blendtec and scores of other high-speed blenders that have emerged in recent years in this pricey category, there are plenty of good ones online, including at the Vitamix website. What you’ll quickly learn is that a high-performance blender is for far more than smoothies.

This category of blender for home use came about as something of a surprise, given the serious performance and price – $300 to $600. The Vitamix is ubiquitous in most restaurant kitchens. But health food devotees started using them to make things like kale smoothies and many began juicing with them.

Now, they’re so common you can find them at Target. As many restaurant chefs found, a Vitamix or other blender is ideal for pureeing soups, though you need to watch you don’t overfill the blender. The motor and blades are so powerful that making nut butters is simple. With four cups of roasted almonds, a bit of canola oil and maybe a pinch of salt, you can make almond butter in minutes. Hummus and a slew of different salsas are also made with ease.

But the biggest surprise might be using a blender to make bread – or at least mix and knead the dough. To do that, you turn the machine on and off five times, repeating that process five times. Yes, you still have to shape the dough and bake it, but we’re betting you won’t miss that long-lost bread machine.

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

Pressure cooker baked apples

With permission of Laura Pazzaglia of Hippressurecooking.com

The sugar counts as “cooking liquid” so this recipe contains 1½ cups (350ml) of liquid.

6 fresh apples, cored

¼ cup (30g) raisins

1 cup (250ml) red wine

½ cup (100g) raw demerara sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon powder

Add the apples to the base of the pressure cooker. Pour in wine, sprinkle raisins, sugar and cinnamon powder. Close and lock the lid of the pressure cooker.

For stove-top pressure cookers: Turn the heat up to high and when the cooker indicates it has reached high pressure, lower to the heat to maintain it and begin counting 10 minutes pressure cooking time. When time is up, open the pressure cooker with the Natural release method – move the cooker off the burner and wait for the pressure to come down on its own (about 10 minutes).

For electric pressure cooker: Cook for 10 minutes at high pressure. Disengage the “keep warm” mode or unplug the cooker and open when the pressure indicator has gone down (20 to 30 minutes). Scoop out of the pressure cooker and serve in a small bowl with lots of cooking liquid.

Easy no-fuss whole pressure cooker chicken

1 lemon, zested (about 1 1/2 tablespoons)

1 tablespoon olive oil

One 3- to 4-pound chicken

1 cup chicken stock

3 sprigs thyme (about 1 tablespoon of leaves)

Spice rub: ¼ teaspoon pepper, ½ teaspoon cinnamon powder, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 tablespoon cumin powder, 1 tablespoon coriander powder

In a small bowl mix the ingredients for the spice rub, with the lemon zest and set aside. Preheat the pressure cooker using sauté or brown mode. Rub the chicken with about half the olive oil, and pat the spice rub all around the chicken, also inside the skin above the chicken breasts and thighs. Sprinkle the remaining olive oil in the base of the pressure cooker, and place the chicken breast-side down to brown – about 5 minutes. Then, turn the chicken breast-side up (it’s OK if the chicken is diagonal in narrower pressure cookers) and pour in the stock to the side of the chicken so as not to dislodge any of the rub. Close and lock the lid of the pressure cooker.

Electric pressure cookers: Cook for 25 minutes at high pressure. Disengage the “keep warm” mode, or unplug the cooker, and open the lid when the pressure indicator/lid-lock has gone down (about 15-20 minutes).

Stovetop pressure cookers: Turn the heat up to high and when the cooker indicates it has reached high pressure, lower the heat to maintain it and begin counting 20 minutes pressure cooking time. When time is up, open the pressure cooker with the Natural pressure release. Move the cooker off the burner and wait for the pressure to come down on its own (about 10 minutes).

Pour out the cooking liquid in a heat-proof cup, and set aside or use to make a gravy, and then shake, shimmy and wiggle the chicken out of the base and into the serving dish. Cover with foil immediately and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Sous vide pork chops

With permission of J. Kenji-Lopez-Alt of SeriousEats.com

4 bone-in pork rib chops, 1 1/2 inches thick each (about 2 1/2 pounds; 1.1kg total)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 sprigs thyme or rosemary (optional)

2 garlic cloves (optional)

2 shallots, thinly sliced (optional)

2 tablespoons (30ml) vegetable, canola, or rice bran oil (optional)

2 tablespoons (30ml) butter (optional)

Preheat a sous vide cooker to the desired final temperature (rare: 130 degrees Fahrenheit; medium-rare 140 degrees; medium-well 150 degrees; well-done 160 degrees). Season pork chops generously with salt and pepper. Place in sous vide bags along with herbs, garlic, and shallots (if using) and distribute evenly. Seal bags and place in water bath for time recommended in chart above.

Turn on your vents and open your windows. Remove pork from water bath and bag and carefully pat dry with paper towels. Add vegetable, canola, or rice bran oil to a heavy cast iron or stainless steel skillet, place it over the hottest burner you have, and preheat skillet until it starts to smoke. Working in batches if necessary, gently lay pork chops in skillet, using your fingers or a set of tongs. If desired, add 1 tablespoon butter; for a cleaner-tasting sear, omit butter at this stage. Carefully lift and peek under pork as it cooks to gauge how quickly it is browning. Let it continue to cook until the crust is deep brown and very crisp, about 45 seconds.

Flip pork chops. If desired, add 1 more tablespoon butter, along with thyme, rosemary, garlic, and/or shallots. Spoon butter over pork chops as they cook. Continue cooking until second side is browned, about 45 seconds longer.

When pork is browned, pick it up with a pair of tongs, rotate it sideways, and make sure to brown the edges as well. Transfer cooked pork chops to a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet and repeat with remaining pork chops as necessary. Just before serving, reheat the drippings in the pan until sizzling-hot, then pour them over pork chops in order to re-crisp their exteriors. Serve immediately.

Pressure cooker pasta with broccoli and sausage one-pot meal

Author: Laura Pazzaglia, hip pressure cooking

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound (500g) sausage, your favorite kind

1 pound (500g) penne pasta

1 tablespoon tomato paste concentrate

1 teaspoon salt

3 to 4 cups water, to cover

8 to 12 ounces (250-350g) broccoli florets

2 garlic cloves, finely minced

1 teaspoon paprika, for garnish

Add the oil to the preheated pressure cooker and then squeeze the sausage meat out of its casing into the pressure cooker.

Break up the sausage and sauté, stirring infrequently until browned – at first the sausages will release water and then they will begin to fry, become crispy and start looking golden (about 5 minutes).

Once the sausage is crispy, lift out of the pressure cooker and set aside. You can also remove some of the fat at this point, if you prefer.

Add a small splash of water and lift up the browned bits stuck to the base of the pressure cooker.

Next add the pasta, tomato paste and salt. Mix the ingredients inside the pressure cooker well.

Smooth out the top of the pasta into a somewhat flat layer, and add just enough water to cover the pasta (a few corners and points sticking out are OK).

On top of the pasta mixture, add the broccoli florets – stem-side down.

Close and lock the lid of the pressure cooker.

Electric pressure cookers: Cook for 5 minutes at Low pressure.

Stovetop pressure cookers: Turn the heat up to high and when the cooker indicates it has reached Low pressure, lower the heat to maintain it and begin counting 5 minutes pressure cooking time.

When time is up, open the pressure cooker with the Normal release – release pressure through the valve. Mix in the garlic, break up the broccoli, and add the fried sausage pieces back into the pressure cooker.

Serve with a sprinkle of paprika.

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