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COOKING UNDER PRESSURE: Recipe for white bean and pancetta soup

02/25/2015 05:16 EST | Updated 04/27/2015 05:59 EDT
It's one of the most pervasive of culinary cliches — the exploding pressure cooker. And thanks to it, all manner of otherwise adept home cooks fearfully retreat from this kitchen workhorse.

Except that it's a fear justified only if you are using a pressure cooker manufactured decades ago. It's been a long time since even bargain versions of these speed demon cooking pots lacked sufficient fail-safes to ensure your pot roast or baked beans wouldn't erupt. Which is why cookbook authors Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough hope to retire the cliche and get people excited about pressure cooking.

But the changes aren't just about a lack of explosions. Modern pressure cookers — sales of which have boomed recently — are predominantly electric, Scarbrough said in a recent telephone interview. And electric pressure cookers require different cooking times and volumes of liquid than stovetop models. They also come with more bells and whistles, including doubling as slow cookers and Bluetooth controls via a smartphone.

For those not in the know, pressure cookers work — and work more quickly than traditional cooking methods — by trapping the steam produced during cooking. This allows you to cook beyond the standard boiling point of 212 F, usually closer to 250 F. This means that foods that typically need long, slow simmers can be cooked fast and with surprisingly good results.

Scarbrough and Weinstein walk readers through all this — including how to adjust cooking times based on traditional vs. electric models — with 500 recipes in their new book, "The Great Big Pressure Cooker Book." Scarbrough recently chatted about all those changes, and why a simple soup may help people appreciate them. (Interview edited for length and clarity.)

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AP: People tend to be relatively fearful of using a pressure cooker. So while they're popular, there still is this disconnect.

Scarbrough : Everybody's got stories about "My grandmother blew the window out of her house" or "My grandmother blew the ceiling off her kitchen." Of course, that has all been taken care of with the modern invention of the rubber gasket. You can't really blow the lid off these things anymore. You can blow the gasket out and it will spill out down the side of the pot and onto the stove, but you can't take the ceiling off the top of your stove anymore. I think we may also have a bit of gadget fatigue going on, because my god, how many more gadgets do I need in my kitchen? That may change because the way pressure cookers are all morphing is into the three-in-ones; it's a slow cooker, a rice cooker and a pressure cooker all in one pot. I think that may help.

AP: If you tell people they're getting the slow cooker they like, and they're also getting a pressure cooker, they are going to be more inclined to not only give the real estate to it, but also try it.

Scarbrough: Sales of pressure cookers have escalated so much over the past five to 10 years, clearly there is an appetite for shall we say the microwave replacement — something that makes dinner fast, but makes it without the mushiness of microwaved food. Honest braises and soups without a long, two hours, four hours, six hours in the oven. I think the pressure cooker also appeals to people because the slow cooker forces you to think ahead. You have to have shopped yesterday for today to set it up this morning. The pressure cooker, you can actually shop on your way home from work.

AP: There's also a sense that the only things a pressure cooker does is beans and roasts, which it does quite well. But most people don't eat beans and roasts every day. So how do you turn it into an everyday tool?

Scarbrough: We have a whole chapter of fish dishes in the book, which seems absurd. But most of those fish dishes in the chapter are using the pressure cooker to make a quick, literally five-minute deeply layered sauce. Then you take the lid off and stir the fish or the shrimp into it at the last moment. I think that automatically makes people think, "Oh wait, there's something else I can do here." I can also say that in the demos that we've done, people have been blown away by the cheesecakes in the pressure cooker. They are creamier and denser and a bit chewier in a kind of true New York-style cheesecake way than you can often get in the oven. It is an amazing thing to make a cheesecake in the pressure cooker.

AP: What do you think is the most likely recipe to make a convert out of somebody, or at least make them more willing to explore?

Scarbrough: I have been pointing people to a recipe in the book for white bean and pancetta soup. It kind of does everything a pressure cooker should do. Dried beans in an amazing amount of time. The pancetta gets luxuriously soft. The other thing that has proven itself in demos is the chili mac. It is amazing that you can put the dried pasta and the cheese and all the ingredients in there and end up with chili mac in five minutes.

AP: Pressure cooker technology has changed so much, recipes no longer seem to match up with older models. These days, you can make nuanced adjustments to the pressure level you cook at. But in pressure cookers even a decade or so old, you just don't have that level of control. That must make recipe writing for these devices a challenge.

Scarbrough: Especially because the electric pressure cooker has become the bulk of the market. Electric pressure cookers have all these sensors that let you adjust the pressure. Also, the problem is, those electric pressure cookers do cook at a lower pressure than the one on your stove. So timings are all off for electric. Many times the liquid level is off. You often have to use less liquid because often they don't release any steam during cooking. What astounded us when we went to write this book is that despite the fact that the bulk of the sales are electric, almost all food writers still wrote every recipe as though it was for the stovetop model.

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WHITE BEAN AND PANCETTA SOUP

Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough caution against substituting canned beans in this recipe. They say dried beans hold their texture better. They also suggest that for a smoky flavour, you can substitute slab bacon for the pancetta, or use 2 ounces of pancetta and 2 ounces of slab bacon.

Start to finish: 30 minutes (plus soaking the beans overnight)

Servings: 6

2 cups dried great northern beans (about 1 pound)

One 4-ounce chunk pancetta, chopped

1 small yellow onion, chopped

1 quart chicken broth

4-inch sprig fresh rosemary

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Up to 1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)

Soak the beans in a big bowl of water on the counter for at least 12 hours or up to 16 hours. Drain in a colander set in the sink.

Put the pancetta and onion in a 6-quart stovetop pressure cooker set over medium heat or in a 6-quart electric pressure cooker turned to the browning mode. Saute until the pancetta is crisp at the edges and the onion has softened, about 4 minutes, stirring often. Stir in the broth, rosemary, pepper and salt, as well as the drained beans. Lock the lid onto the pot.

STOVETOP: Raise the heat to high and bring the pot to high pressure (15 psi). Once this pressure has been reached, reduce the heat as much as possible while maintaining this pressure. Cook for 10 minutes.

ELECTRIC: Set the machine to cook at high pressure (9 to 11 psi). Set the machine's timer to cook at high pressure for 15 minutes.

Use the quick-release method (according to your pressure cooker's instructions) to return the pot's pressure to normal. Unlock and open the pot. Discard the rosemary sprig. Mash some of the beans against the walls of the cooker with a wooden spoon to create a thick paste to thicken the soup. Stir well, adding the cream, if desired.

Nutrition information per serving: 340 calories; 80 calories from fat (24 per cent of total calories); 8 g fat (2.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 47 g carbohydrate; 12 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 21 g protein; 1,080 mg sodium.

(Recipe adapted from Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough's "The Great Big Pressure Cooker Book," Clarkson Potter, 2015)

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