Garniture, Pork Products, Quick Meals, Vegetables

Under pressure.

When I was a kid, my mom had a pressure cooker. If you were born before 1975, your mom probably used one as well. Beans that normally take hours on the stove were tender in less than half an hour; tough, inexpensive cuts of meat could be shredded with a fork in an equally short time. Convenient, right? And economical. So why did pressure cookers disappear from the scene?

Truthfully, they never did. Pressure cookers developed an unfortunate reputation for riskiness, as tales of exploding vessels and steam injuries found their way to cooks’ ears. The construction of early pressure cookers was to blame – although most never failed, they did rely on a single valve and a metal weight – usually called the rocker or jiggler – to relieve excess steam pressure, and lacked redundant safety features like locking lids and additional valves. Even when used correctly, they tended to be noisy – the steam whistled through the valve as the rocker’s weight clanked against the cooker lid.

Pressure cooking is back, though, and manufacturers have improved the safety features, significantly reducing the likelihood of an explosion. My pressure cooker, manufactured by All American, features two vents, as well as a lid that clamps shut at six points, and also locks by twisting. The pressure and temperature indicator permits relatively accurate pressure monitoring. How does it work? Water vapor pressure buildup. With the lid firmly clamped in place and sealed with a gasket or other mechanism, the vessel – filled with the food to be cooked and a sufficient quantity of liquid – is heated. Because the lid is clamped shut and sealed with a gasket against the vessel, steam cannot escape through the margin between the lid and the vessel, and builds up inside as the liquid boils. As the pressure increases within the vessel, so does the boiling point (the temperature at which water passes from the liquid to the gaseous phase). At sea level, at the maximum recommended safe pressure for most pressure cookers – 15 psi – water boils at 122C (252F). Collagen breakdown for tough cuts of meat takes place quickly at this temperature, as does carbohydrate and fiber breakdown for hard items such as beans.

The time savings?About 70% from conventional cooking times. Pressure cooking makes weekday braised possible. The braised pork shank with buttery celeriac purée below took an hour and fifteen minutes, including prep time; a stew would have taken about 30-45.

While pressure cooking the shanks, make the purée. Then quick pickle some red onions to add crunch and bite to the dish. Using a vacuum sealer, you can pickle the onions in minutes. The vacuum process removes air from the onion cells – when the vacuum is released, the brine rushes in to fill those spaces.

Braised shanks

2 pork shanks or lower arm cuts from just above the joint
2 carrots, sliced on the diagonal (1/2″)
2 celery stalks, peeled and diced
1 small onion, peeled and diced (1/2″)
Bay leaf
Several sprigs of thyme
1 1/2 c dry white wine
4 c chicken stock (unsalted broth is ok)
olive oil

Place pressure cooker over medium heat; when hot, add olive oil to film pan. Season shanks on meaty ends with salt and brown on both meaty sides. Remove and hold; add mirepoix to the pan and sauté until vegetables take on a little golden brown color; season with salt and add wine. Reduce by 2/3 and add stock and herbs.

Place rack in pressure cooker and set shanks on top. Secure the lid, bring to 15 psi, and cook 45 minutes. Turn off heat and when fully depressurized, remove lid. Remove shanks and set aside. Strain braising liquid through chinois into a smaller pan and defat. Reduce to the consistency of a thin sauce.

[Note: if you are not using a pressure cooker, set the oven to 250F and use a large, deep vessel with a lid to perform all steps up to the point of placing the rack in a pressure cooker. Bring the stock/mirepoix mixture to a simmer, return the shanks to the vessel, cover with a lid or a parchment lid, and place in the oven to braise for about 4 hours. Then continue with straining and reducing the liquid.]

Meanwhile, separate meat from skin/fat (reserve for another use) and divide into large chunks.

Buttery celeriac purée

Keeping the celeriac in acidulated water as soon as you cut it keeps the purée snow white.

2 medium celeriac
1 lemon, juiced (reserve halves)
2 tsp white wine vinegar, plus more if necessary
3 oz butter or so (depending on celeriac size), divided
salt and white pepper (use both kosher salt and celery salt)

Add the lemon juice to 3 quarts of water. Peel the celeriac and rub with lemon halves – dice 1″ and immediately drop dice into acidulated water. Bring to a simmer and cook until tender. Drain.

Combine the celeriac, half the butter, and the vinegar in a Vitaprep or blender. Blitz until the celeriac is smooth, scraping down the sides if necessary, and add more butter by bits to improve the texture. Pass through a tamis if necessary (although the puree should be smooth enough and very light if you use the vitaprep and this step should be unnecessary). Season with salt and blitz to combine; taste and adjust with additional vinegar if necessary.

Onion pickle

Because this is a flash pickle, I used a stronger brine than is usual, reversing the water to acid ratio. This pickle is meant to be consumed fresh, not held for storage.

Red onion, peeled and sliced thinly, pole to pole
3 tbsp distilled white vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp coriander seeds, cracked

Combine salt, sugar, and coriander seeds with 1 tbsp water and heat to dissolve salt and sugar. Off heat, add to remaining vinegar. Place onions in a foodsafe plastic bag (eg as for Foodsaver) and add half the vinegar mixture and coriander.

Vacuum the onions in a chamber vacuum sealer (or using a home vacuum sealer on the “liquid” setting, if available). If you see bubbles emerging from the onions (unlikely using the home sealer), wait until the bubbles stop; otherwise, wait several minutes before cutting open the bag.

To assemble

Place a large spoonful of celeriac puree in the center of a plate or shallow bowl. Arrange several chunks of pork shank, garnish with onion pickle and some bitter greens (watercress or arugula), or celery salad.

Fish, Italian, Quick Meals, Salad, Vegetables

A crude effort.

After the holidays, most people seem to think about eating less, to make up for the feasting season between Thanksgiving and New Year. Resolving to eat less and exercise more, they dust off the gym membership, re-join Weight Watchers, place a call to Jenny Craig. But consider this: when you cook at home, you control what goes into your food. You can adjust the amount of fat (within reason); you can eliminate unnecessary sugar. Cooking at home is a great way to eat well in the New Year while keeping a lid on the calories. Additional bonuses: you’ll save money, and you won’t be the killjoy who orders a salad at the restaurant, dressing on the side.

We had a fun holiday season, and now it’s back to some more sound eating habits. Yesterday, while picking up some duck at the H Mart (more on that later this week), I decided to stop by the sushi station, where a couple of guys will sell a block of sashimi-grade fish if that’s what you want to take home. I asked for hamachi, and was handed a block of US-farmed yellowtail. This is a delicious fish – it’s rich and buttery, and has a faintly smoky taste. US-farmed yellowtail also is a “good alternative” according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, which provides buy/avoid recommendations on seafood based on sustainability and other environmental issues. You can download a mobile guide for your iPhone here, which is handy when you’re shopping for fish or eating out.

When I got home with the hamachi, I realized I didn’t want to do something Japanese – right now, the refrigerator is packed with arugula and fennel, and tons of citrus. This crudo is the result: a nearly-raw meal, with smoky grilled lemon to complement the smoky taste of the fish but cut through its richness, and a peppery olive oil to finish. The fennel salad is light and crisp, and comes together in minutes with the help of a Japanese ceramic slicer.

We finished off the meal with a simple salad of arugula, shaved
Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a few drops of balsamico tradizionale.

Hamachi crudo with grilled lemon and fennel salad

If you do use mushrooms in the fennel salad, do not substitute mushrooms ad hoc for the white button mushrooms specified. Cremini are fine, but many mushrooms are mildly toxic if eaten raw and most of the cultivated speciality mushrooms (often erroneously termed “wild” mushrooms) should not be eaten raw. Others simply do not taste good unless cooked to emphasize their savory, umami quality. I didn’t have any button mushrooms last night so I opted out.

1 lb hamachi filet, sashimi grade – most likely you will receive the dorsal filet as the belly is quite expensive
2 lemons, sliced about 1/3″ and seeds removed
olive oil, preferably a peppery, slightly bitter oil from Umbria or
southern Italy
bitter greens, such as radish sprouts or watercress, optional
sea salt and pepper (I use a Pondicherry true red peppercorn because I like its fruity and warm spice quality; Pondicherry is almost impossible to find and black peppercorn is fine)

Remove the skin from the hamachi if the fish purveyor has not already done so; remove the bloodline by slicing through the hamachi along the margin where the dark flesh (the bloodline) meets the rest of the fish. Discard the bloodline, unless you have a peculiar taste for it.

Slice the hamachi at a 30 degree angle. Slices should be less than 1/4″
thick. The more connective tissue is evident in your filet, the thinner
you should slice. Arrange on a plate.

Drizzle olive oil on both sides of the lemon slices. Place a grill pan
over high heat. When searingly hot, grill the lemon slices, a minute or so on each side, until well marked but not burned. Transfer to the plate with the hamachi.

Drizzle olive oil lightly over the hamachi, finish with sea salt and pepper, and serve with the fennel salad and bitter greens, if you like. Squeeze the juice from the grilled lemon over the hamachi as you eat it, not before (to avoid cooking the fish ceviche-style).

Fennel salad

2 fennel bulbs, washed well
1/4 lb white button mushrooms, washed well [optional]
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper

Shave the fennel bulbs as thinly as possible using a mandoline or a Japanese ceramic slicer. If using white mushrooms, do the same. Toss with lemon juice in a small serving bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and finish with salt and pepper.