When Amar Santana tells me I need to buy an electric pressure cooker, I buy one. The chef-owner of the newly opened Broadway by Amar Santana restaurant in Laguna Beach (and former executive chef at Charlie Palmer at South Coast Plaza) promised me scrumptious risotto in seven minutes.
I drove to Costco.
There among the skillet sets and ice cream machines, a big stack of boxed pressure cookers formed a kind of appliance pyramid. Six-quart beauties made by Cuisinart. One was mine for $69.99.
And according to the words on the package, this not-much-bigger-than-my-slow-cooker gizmo could cook up to 70 percent faster than traditional stovetop methods. And in addition to variable pressure settings, lid off, it simmers or browns or sautés.
But as I unboxed it, I couldn’t help remembering my other experience long ago in my tiny apartment in Lincoln Heights. Over 30 years ago, I blew up dinner using a cheap stovetop pressure cooker. I can still remember the eerie sound; rock, rock, rock, sssscccccchhhh, kaboom.
I’d like to think that I’m savvier now. Besides, the directions in the instruction/recipe booklet seemed easy. After reading, I started on page 23 with the green chicken chili. Raw (un-soaked) pinto beans, chicken and, well, the whole caboodle took less than one hour. I, of course, took some liberties with the recipe, garnishing the soupy concoction with baked strips of corn tortillas, shredded Jack cheese and some chunks of avocado. It was delicious.
Next, a classic beef stew. Of course, the formula started with browning big chunks of chuck roast. I set the heat to brown and was concerned that the oil seems to collect in the sides of the pot. But the meat browned nicely in spite of it. Again, the time spent from start to finish was less than an hour and the results were very good. The beef pressured-cooked with a mirepoix (finely chopped onion, carrot and celery), which gave the sauce a pleasing taste and aroma. Only whole baby carrots and peas were added for the final cooking. Me? I’d add a parsnip or two. Or some baby turnips. Maybe some peeled celery root cut the size of baby carrots.
To sop up the juices, I served the stew over wide egg noodles.
The two dishes were a nice start, but I wanted expert advice, so I loaded my electric whiz-bang cooker in my car and headed for Broadway by Amar Santana.
Loading Arborio rice and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms into the machine, Santana explained that he realized the value of a pressure cooker when cooking at the Pigs & Pinot culinary fundraiser in the Sonoma Valley.
“I was cooking with (Chef) Marc Forgione and we had to create two pork dishes in less than two hours,” he said, punctuating the sentence with one of his signature belly laughs. “We did pig ears and pig cheeks. We had a pressure cooker, so they were braised in 30 minutes. Tender, so tender; we breaded and deep fried them.”
I took a seat at one of the six cushy chairs at the restaurant’s chef counter – perches blessed with a close-up view of the kitchen. I watched as he secured the pressure cooker’s lid and pushed the “high pressure” setting and the timer for 7 minutes.
It took 5 minutes for enough pressure to build up for the timer to start the countdown, so it took a whopping 12 minutes for the risotto to be ready. He stirred in mascarpone, butter, grated Gruyere cheese and minced green onion stalks.
“People have issues with cooking risotto at home. They just don’t want to stir, and stir, and stir,” he said, spooning the creamy mixture into bowls.
Perfect, the risotto was perfect; a smidgen of chew at the very heart of each kernel, the rest alluringly creamy and filled with flavor. Earthy rich, accomplished without continuous stirring.
For his hummus, he says that he pressure-cooks dried, soaked garbanzo beans about 35 minutes. Beets pressure cook in 6 minutes.
OK, I know you may want one. A couple of things, my friends. First, read the instruction booklet. It’s really not complicated. Second, don’t place the pressure cooker under your kitchen cabinets; when you release the steam, it’ll wreak havoc with the finish. And third, when you release the steam using the “quick pressure release,” do it gradually; there is a little protrusion on the side of the valve – hook that little protrusion with tongs or the end of a spoon or knife – and gently lift. Don’t even think about using your hands.