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Pressure Cooking : Don't be afraid. Its the microwave of the '90s! : THE TIME IS RIGHT FOR A PRESSURE COOKER COMEBACK. FOR FAST, LOW-FAT COOKING THAT RETAINS ESSENTIAL FLAVORS. IT CAN'T BE BEAT. : Great for Vegetarians too!

March 23, 1995|KATHIE JENKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you tell 10 people that you use a pressure cooker, nine will have the same response: "Aren't you afraid?"

I asked that same question myself a year ago when a pal bragged that rich, pressure-cooked chicken stock took her just 30 minutes to make. After all, pressure cookers have an awful reputation. They blow up, don't they?

They used to. One of my earliest memories is finding my grandmother perched on a ladder in her farmhouse kitchen, furiously scrubbing sticky oatmeal off the glossy white ceiling. But that explosion didn't deter my Swedish grandmother.

Would I let my fear of pressure cookers keep me from making that stock? I knew pressure cookers are supposed to be totally hassle-free now, that safety features have been engineered in even the least expensive models, that pressure cookers don't blow their tops anymore. Still, when my new pressure cooker arrived by UPS, it took me more than a week to open the box.

I carefully read the instruction booklet, which went to great lengths to say that the cooker couldn't explode because it had an emergency release valve on the cover. At least I wouldn't be maimed or burned.

Even so, I kept thinking about Ricky and Fred cooking arroz con pollo for Lucy and Ethel. The chicken hit the ceiling when the pressure cooker blew its lid.

I tried to remember more positive pressure-cooker trivia. In the 1946 edition of "The Joy of Cooking," Irma S. Rombauer boasts that a pressure cooker permits a cook to scoff at time. Julia Child uses one, and still claims it's the best thing for hard-boiling eggs. Even actress Leslie Caron says there are only three things she needs to prepare gourmet meals these days: an egg beater, a food processor and a pressure cooker.

Feeling confident, I decided to try my new cooker out on something easy--a batch of tamales I had stashed in the freezer. I poured some water into the pot, placed a few tamales into the steamer basket and locked the lid in place. But when I turned on the burner, I stood on the other side of the room. The red button on the handle popped up in a few minutes, just the way the instruction booklet said it would. A column of steam escaped, making a faint whooshing sound that was not nearly as loud as the chug-a-chug of my grandmother's cooker. Five minutes later, I had hot, fluffy tamales.

If I had steamed the frozen tamales, I'd probably still be pacing by the stove. Zapped in the microwave, the tamales would have ended up dry and hard, just like practically everything else cooked in that other time-saving device.

Encouraged, I began experimenting with other recipes. It wasn't long before I too was turning out flavorful chicken stock in 30 minutes, brown rice in 20 minutes, lamb stew in nine minutes, even creamy risotto in five minutes.

Now I'm hooked.

"It's ridiculous," says Judy Montgomery-Lofaro, a housewife and mother. She inherited a pressure cooker from her mother-in-law. "Once you start using the pressure cooker, you get sucked in. I used to have to be home by 3 in order to have dinner on the table for my family. Now I can come home at 5 and make chicken cacciatore , start to finish, in an hour and 15 minutes.

"I can't live without my pressure cooker. I use it every day."

The ultimate wedding gift of the '40s may have been an aluminum pressure cooker. Pressure cookers were in every kitchen, next to the coffeepot, toaster and waffle iron. And yet, pressure cookers had one big problem: clogged vents.

Manufacturers warned against cooking foods such as cereal, rice and macaroni in pressure cookers because the froth and foam tended to block the vents. But some cooks paid no heed. Their pressure cookers erupted like Old Faithful.

But pressure cookers aren't dangerous if you follow the instructions. And the safety mechanisms built into today's models make accidents practically impossible. The new lids must be locked in place before the pressure will rise; they won't unlock until all the pressure has been dissipated. A release valve on the lid prevents pressure buildup. So even if you forget to adjust the heat when full pressure is reached--or if a vent clogs--an over-pressure plug and back-up vents release excess steam. Cooking with a late-model pressure cooker is no more dangerous than broiling a chop or baking a cake.

"Everyone thinks of pressure cookers as something their mother used in the '50s and they blew up in your face," says chef Ann Gentry. "But that is not the truth at all. They are safe and are a great way of cooking things quickly."

She uses pressure cookers for the grains served at her Santa Monica organic-food restaurant, Real Food Daily. "They steam the vegetable or grain fully so that the great sweetness and flavor of the food will come out, I find, better than steaming, boiling or sauteing."

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