May 2009 Issue

Cooking Under Pressure — Easing the Pain of Preparing Wholesome Meals
By Rita E. Carey, MS, RD, CDE       
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 11 No. 5 P. 42

You urge your patients with diabetes to consume whole foods such as beans and grains. Now help them discover a cooking method that can simplify and take the frustration out of healthy food prep.

Dietitians regularly encourage people with diabetes to choose minimally processed, complex carbohydrates for good glycemic control. Patients learn early on to consistently choose unrefined starchy foods such as beans and whole grains over highly processed foods such as white rice, pasta, and bread. Unfortunately, many people become discouraged by initial attempts to prepare these healthier foods. Grains and legumes can require extended cooking times and unique preparation skills with which new and experienced cooks alike may be unfamiliar. A pressure cooker may be the perfect tool to help cooks easily prepare whole foods. Many cooks may even already own one, though it may be long forgotten and stored in a dusty cupboard.

In American kitchens since the 1940s, the pressure cooker has reduced cooking time for beans, grains, and other foods by at least one third, used less energy, and allowed for one-pot meals—a bonus for all busy cooks and pot scrubbers. Because foods cooked under high pressure retain moisture, many recipes can be prepared with minimal fat, helping individuals reduce their overall intake and, hopefully, their heart disease risk. Even lean cuts of meat, which often take several hours of slow cooking to become palatable, can be made fork-tender in considerably less time. Pressure-cooked foods retain flavor as well, reducing the need for added salt in many recipes.

Educate your clients and patients about pressure cooker safety, cooking techniques, timing, and other fundamentals, and they will be well on their way to preparing healthy, whole food meals.

High-Pressure Safety            
A pressure cooker cooks foods at temperatures higher than those attainable with other stovetop methods. These temperatures (up to 250˚F) develop under conditions of high pressure, which promotes both faster cooking and the tenderizing of foods. However, extreme environmental conditions such as these do raise some safety concerns of which home cooks should be aware.        

Older pressure cookers likely have two or three safety release mechanisms: the steam vent, a pressure valve, and/or a gasket that can blow out if the pressure inside the cooker becomes too high. Although these are safe to use—my 1980s-era cooker has never blown a valve or gasket—newer models are designed to be virtually fail- and accident-safe. 

In her cookbook Pressure Perfect, Lorna Sass recommends checking older cookers for pressure-release features and advises avoiding cookers with fewer than three safety mechanisms. She also suggests examining rubber gaskets and seals for cracks and testing them to determine whether they seal properly (see sidebar). If an older cooker fails any of these tests, cooks should strongly consider purchasing a newer model. In addition to having improved pressure-release mechanisms, newer models may also have locks that prevent lid removal before all of the pressure is released, a variety of visual indicators of pressure, and safe quick-release valves. 

Moist Cooking    
Because liquid is needed to prepare anything in a pressure cooker, it’s best used for recipes that utilize moist-heat cooking methods: soups, stews, steamed meats and vegetables, and simmered grains and legumes. All cookers need a minimum amount of liquid to reach high pressure (at least 1 cup), so it is important that people check the manufacturer’s specifications to determine how much liquid their model needs. If following a recipe devised for a pressure cooker, cooks must be sure to use the liquid recommended; if converting a recipe, they must use at least the minimum liquid required for the cooker.  

Timing Is Everything     
A timer is essential when using a pressure cooker because cooks will not have visual or other sensory cues to alert them that their food is cooked properly. However, determining the correct timing for a variety of dishes may also require some trial and error, as timing varies with ingredients and elevation.

When first trying out a recipe, people may purposely reduce the recommended cooking time by 10%. They can always bring food back up to pressure if it requires more time, but they cannot undo overcooking. They can also first cook items in a recipe that need more time (eg, grains) and then add items that need less time (eg, vegetables) to ensure all of the ingredients are cooked perfectly. Large-cut vegetables will take longer to cook than those that are small cut, so adjusting the size of ingredients may also help with timing.             

Cooks at elevations greater than 2,000 feet above sea level may need to extend cooking times and use extra liquid. (The recipes included in this article were prepared at 5,600 feet.) Those who live at a lower elevation may need to shorten the suggested cooking times.   

Adding Flavor and Cooking Foods That Foam  
Cooks should add only a small amount of salt before cooking and wait to see whether they need to add more after the dish is completed. The flavor of fresh herbs and garlic does not fare well under pressure for extended times. Therefore, adding these ingredients toward the end of cooking or just before serving is most effective. 

Legumes and grains produce foam when cooked under pressure. Sass recommends adding oil to the cooking liquid to prevent foaming and taking care not to fill the cooker more than halfway when cooking these items to prevent foam from clogging the pressure release vents.

Pressure Release Options
If they have an older pressure cooker, people can release pressure in one of two ways. Natural pressure release involves removing the cooker from the flame and allowing the pressure to decrease gradually. This takes 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the food being cooked. It’s important to keep in mind that food will continue cooking until the pressure is fully released.   

To release pressure quickly, simply remove the cooker from the stove and place it in the sink. Run cold water over the top until the pressure valve drops. This generally takes five to 10 seconds. Quick release is ideal for steamed vegetables and fish and for interrupting the cooking process to check doneness or add new ingredients. Newer cookers often have a third option—a turn of the pressure release valve drops the pressure quickly. However, cooks should avoid placing their hand in front of the valve if they use this option because the released steam can cause a severe burn.

Cooking Beans
Beans that have been in storage for an extended period of time will take longer to tenderize; in fact, some will never soften. Check beans for signs of age (eg, wrinkled skin, faded color, cracks) and opt for ones with good color and intact skins. Cooking beans with acidic ingredients will also prevent tenderizing. Add tomatoes, citrus juice, and other acids toward the end of the cooking process. To ensure beans are whole and not too mushy, check them five to 10 minutes before the cooking time is complete. Whole beans can turn to purée relatively quickly in a pressure cooker, so cooks may need to experiment to establish the appropriate cooking time. To cook beans more quickly, soak them in water overnight. Doing so will cut the cooking time by one third to one half, depending on the type of bean.

Helpful Resources     
All pressure cookers come with an instruction manual and recipes. People who are using an older model and have misplaced the manual can contact the manufacturer, who should be able to answer any questions they have about its use and care. Cookbooks abound, and recipes and product reviews are also available online. (A cookbook or other instructional resource is essential for beginners.)       

With some basic guidelines, a pressure cooker is an easy tool to learn to use. Without some instruction, however, the learning curve can be pretty steep! 

— Rita E. Carey, MS, RD, CDE, is a clinical dietitian and a diabetes educator at Yavapai Regional Medical Center and the Pendleton Wellness Center in Prescott, Ariz.


Checking Gasket Seals
Pour 2 cups of water into the cooker and secure the lid. Bring cooker up to pressure. If water drips down the sides of the cooker or if the cooker does not reach high pressure, purchase a new gasket.

— Information adapted from Lorna Sass’ Pressure Perfect


Easy Barley Soup

Makes 6 cups

A bowl of this soup will warm and fill you any chilly, rainy night.

1/2 cup pearled barley
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth or vegetable stock
5 tsp canola oil, divided
3 stalks celery, chopped in pieces two to three times the size of the barley
2 medium carrots, chopped in pieces two to three times the size of the barley
1 large onion, chopped in 1/2-in chunks
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp fresh or 1/4 tsp dried thyme
Pinch salt and pepper
1/8 cup white wine
2 cups frozen chopped green beans
2 cups water
3 cups chopped escarole*
6 oz low-fat spicy turkey sausage, cooked (optional)

Combine barley, broth, and 1 tsp canola oil in cooker. Secure lid on cooker and cook on high heat until pressure is reached. Once pressure is reached, reduce heat and set timer for 10 minutes. When time is up, remove from heat and let pressure drop naturally. Meanwhile, prepare vegetables for soup.

Heat 2 tsp canola oil in a nonstick sauté pan and add chopped celery, carrots, onion, garlic, thyme, salt, and pepper. Cook until vegetables start to soften, three to five minutes. Add wine and stir for about 30 seconds. Add green beans, stir, and remove from heat.

When pressure is released from cooker, remove lid. Add vegetables to the pot along with 2 cups water and replace cooker, uncovered, on stove. Simmer uncovered on medium heat. While soup is simmering, heat 2 tsp canola oil in sauté pan on medium-high heat. Add chopped escarole and cook until wilted. Add to soup. If using sausage, slice or crumble into sauté pan and warm on medium heat until browned. Serve soup topped with sausage.

* Escarole is a slightly bitter, green, leafy vegetable. Sautéing will reduce its bitter flavor.

Nutrition information with added sausage: Calories: 222; Carbs: 29 g; Fiber: 6 g; Fat: 6 g; Sodium: 447 mg

Cool Wheat Berry Salad

Makes six 3/4-cup servings

Wheat grains come in hard and soft varieties. Choose soft wheat berries for this recipe because they cook faster. Serve this salad on a big bed of lettuce for a complete meal.

1 cup soft wheat berries
4 cups water
Pinch salt
1 tsp canola oil
1 large Gala apple, chopped
2 T lemon juice
3 large celery stalks, chopped
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
1/2 cup scallions, green and white portions, chopped
1/2-1 tsp curry powder, to taste
1/2 cup low-fat plain yogurt
Salt, to taste
7 walnut halves, chopped (1/2 oz)
8-12 oz sliced chicken

Add first four ingredients to cooker and secure lid. Bring to high pressure, lower heat, and cook for 35 minutes. Remove from heat and quick release pressure under running cold water. Drain wheat berries and set aside to cool.

Toss chopped apple with lemon juice and add to cooled wheat berries, along with celery, parsley, and scallions. Mix curry powder and yogurt together for dressing. Add salt to taste. Mix with wheat berries. Brown nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat. Serve salad topped with toasted nuts and sliced chicken.

Nutrition information: Calories: 358; Carbs: 50 g; Fiber: 8 g; Fat: 12 g; Sodium: 300 mg


Frijoles Enteros

Makes 6 cups

A bowl of pinto beans flavored with chiles, garlic, and oregano and topped with a variety of chopped vegetables and herbs is a filling meal that will instantly transport anyone to the sunny Southwest!

2 cups dried pintos
6 cups water
2 tsp canola oil
2 dried New Mexico or Ancho chiles (alternatively, use fresh or roasted fresh red or green chiles)
5 cloves garlic
1 T dried oregano
Salt, to taste

Combine pintos, water, and oil in pressure cooker. Secure cooker lid, bring to pressure, and set timer for 25 minutes. 

Remove stems and seeds from chiles and tear or chop them into 1/2-in pieces. Roughly chop garlic cloves. When the cooking time for the beans is up, turn off heat and allow cooker to cool naturally. Once pressure is released, check beans for doneness. They should be almost completely tender (al dente) at this point. If they are not, cover beans and cook under pressure for another five minutes. When beans are al dente, add chiles, garlic, and oregano. Replace lid and bring to pressure. Cook for five minutes and allow for natural pressure release. Season with salt and serve (with some of the tasty bean broth) topped with lots of chopped tomatoes, cilantro, onion, lettuce, fresh-chopped chiles, avocado, and lime. A dollop of nonfat sour cream or plain yogurt offers a nice final touch.

Nutrition information (without toppings) and 1 tsp added salt: Calories: 247; Carbs: 43 g; Fiber: 10 g; Fat: 2 g; Sodium: 400 mg