Pressure cookers cook foods faster by utilizing the fact that water boils at a higher temperature when it’s under higher pressure; the typical pressure cooker works at 15 psi, a pressure level at which water boils at 250 degrees. For stews or other long braises, this can reduce cooking times by 75% or more, yet you don’t lose the braise’s power to break down connective tissue or extract gelatin (or its precursors) from bones, and of all my pressure-cooking escapades only beans come out substantially different when cooked under pressure. (It causes beans to pop out of their skins, which is fine if your intent is to mash or puree them.)
Cooking with pressure requires no special skills or other equipment beyond the cooker itself, and unlike your mother’s (or grandmother’s) pressure cooker, today’s models aren’t likely to explode and leave your dinner on the ceiling. The model I use is no longer in production; this Presto 6-quart model seems to be the best starter cooker available, although I can’t tell from the item description if it has two pressure settings or just one.
Somehow, I got the idea the other day to try to make carnitas, which I had often in Phoenix and now miss, via the pressure cooker. Pork carnitas refers to a pork butt (really the shoulder), the same cut you would smoke to make barbecued pulled pork, but braised low and slow in a slightly salty liquid with aromatics and spices, especially cumin. A quick Google search for recipes that might tell me how long to cook the meat turned up this recipe, which didn’t require much modification. After thirty minutes under pressure, the chunks of pork held their shape but could pull apart easily with a fork, and the oven finish brought out the flavors you’d ordinarily get by browning the meat before braising or roasting it. You could take the meat, wrap it in a tortilla with some rice, beans, and salsa, and make a burrito; you could serve it with guacamole and rice as a main course; or you could do what I did: Toss a bunch of it on some blue corn pancakes as a sort of Mexican/New Mexican take on chicken and waffles. A recipe for those pancakes follows.
One 3-4 lb pork butt (shoulder), trimmed of exterior fat and cut into large (two-inch-ish) chunks
1.5 Tbsp salt
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
1 Tbsp ancho chili powder
1/8-1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
1 bay leaf
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, seeds and stem removed, chopped
3 cloves garlic, bruised
1. In a large bowl, toss the pork with the salt and seasonings.
2. Add the pork, bay leaf, and aromatics to a pressure cooker with enough water to cover – it took just over a liter for me to cover 3.3 pounds of meat.
3. Close the cooker, turn the valve to its maximum setting, and put over high heat until the cooker begins hissing loudly. Reduce the heat to bring the cooker to a faint hiss and cook for 30 minutes. With about ten minutes to go, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
4. Release the pressure according to the cooker’s manual – usually that means turning the dial down a level at a time – and remove the pork. Transfer it to an oven-safe skillet or rimmed sheet pan and lightly press each piece with a fork to expose more surface area to the oven’s heat. Re-season with more salt, cumin, etc.
5. Roast the pork with a very thin layer of either the braising liquid or hot water for about 15 minutes, until much of the exposed surface has turned brown. Do not let the pork burn or dry out – check it at the ten-minute mark. Serve.
Blue corn pancakes
I find these sweet without sugar because of the corn, but if you want to make these more breakfasty, you could add 1 Tbsp of sugar, agave nectar, or maple syrup to the mix.
2 cups blue corn flour, preferably whole grain (I like Arrowhead Mills, available at Whole Foods)
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup AP flour
3/4 tsp salt
4 tsp baking powder (more if you want thicker pancakes, but for the pork, I like them thinner)
4 cups milk, 2% to whole
2 sticks (1/2 pound) butter, melted and cooled slightly
1. Mix the flours, baking powder, and salt in a bowl.
2. Whisk the milk, butter, and eggs until well combined. Pour over the dry ingredients and beat just until moistened with no visible lumps. Cook on electric griddle or skillet as you would regular pancakes, on one side until brown at the edges, then flip and cook roughly half as long on the second side. If the pancakes aren’t cooking through, you can thin the batter slightly with a little more milk, or reduce the heat on the griddle.