LET'S face it: The microwave is great, but not for everything. So in this age of quick-fire cuisine, an old standby is making a comeback: the pressure cooker. That's right - the contraption housewives used in the '50s, now out of sight under the sink. No one is quite sure why the pressure cooker went out of style in the United States; Europeans have long relied on it for cooking grains and beans, and for tenderizing cheaper cuts of meat. Americans may have been lured away by frozen TV dinners, McDonald's, and then the microwave. Or they may have been scared off: Time was, if you didn't lower the heat, the cooker could blow its top - and everything in it. Pea soup `a la ceiling. Beef stew fireworks. Pot roast kaboom.
Today's cookers not only have up to three backup safety mechanisms, they are sleek, smart, and selling fast. ``Response has been excellent,'' says Anne Kupper, director of public relations at Williams Sonoma, which reintroduced pressure cookers to its catalog and stores three years ago. Sales have been growing each year, she says, to the company's surprise.
Ranging in price from $50 to $200, depending on size and quality, these new cookers provide ``fast food at its nutritious best,'' says Lorna Sass, a culinary historian and author of ``Cooking Under Pressure'' (William Morrow), due this fall. Hers will be the first pressure cooker cookbook in 10 years.
Imagine a stew or bean soup in 15 to 20 minutes. How about chili, chicken, bread pudding? A pressure cooker cooks food in a third of the normal time.
``What the pressure cooker does really well, which the microwave is limited on, is soups and stews ... and foods whose flavors really mingle,'' said Ms. Sass in an interview. ``You can develop that wonderful home-cooked, long-simmering taste because the pressure cooker really yanks the flavor out of foods.'' She's been pressure-cooking every day for a year, whipping up Curried Parsnip Soup (6 minutes), Risotto With Sundried Tomatoes and Smoked Mozzarella (6 minutes), even cheesecake (15 minutes).
The pressure cooker isn't good for quick-cooking fish or delicate vegetables - ``the danger of over-cooking them is too great,'' says Sass. But it does open up a wide range of foods like dried beans and grains that might otherwise require a lot of preparation and cooking time. Sass loves homemade soups, and stocks that might take 2 to 3 hours can be made in a pressure cooker in 30 minutes.
``There are many people who absolutely swear by pressure cookers, Sass continues. ``They're sort of quietly going their own way.'' For many others, when you say ``pressure cooker,'' they say, ``That old-fashioned thing?'' But when they realize it is no longer the hissing, rattling time bomb in disguise they recall, people may learn what Sass has learned: It's ``a very extraordinary cooking tool.'' It's safe, economical, and it makes delicious meals in minutes.
A recent survey of 413 people by Better Homes and Gardens magazine found that 43 percent of American households already have pressure cookers, though there's no telling the last time they saw daylight. With contemporary models and recipes adapted to today's tastes, the pressure cooker will become popular again, Sass predicts.
The principle behind pressure cooking is simple: Air is forced out of the pot as food heats, but steam is trapped and pressure builds. The pressure (about 15 pounds per square inch) raises the boiling point of the liquid and creates superheated steam, which penetrates the food and cooks it. The cooking time - and the amount of energy used - is reduced.
What happened with the old cookers - which is now impossible because of the many backup devices in today's models - was that when the pressure built up, people would forget to lower the heat and the pressure would keep building and blow the lid off, says Sass, who has absolutely ``no horror stories to tell whatsoever'' from the eight or so models she's been working with.
She recommends buying a six-quart pressure cooker (they range from two to 10 quarts). To cook food properly, you can only fill a pressure cooker two-thirds to three-quarters full.
The idea of pressure cooking dates from 17th-century France, says Sass, who has written four historical cookbooks. It was originally a European technology - the same basic technology as that of canning. The original pressure cookers in the United States, which came in the early part of this century, were called ``pressure canners.'' People in the '20s and '30s would use them - especially on big farms - to can fruits and vegetables. Then during the war years and through the '50s, housewives were fond of its time- and money-saving aspects.
Sass herself backed into her ``discovery'' of the pressure cooker. Her mother came back from a trip to India with one under her arm, and asked to borrow a pressure cooker cookbook. Among Sass's hundreds of cookbooks, not one was for pressure cooking. So she sent her mother to a cookbook store. Much to her dismay, no books on the subject were in print. So Sass was prompted to write one.
When people came over for a pressure-cooked meal they would ask for seconds and thirds. Then when they heard how little time it took to prepare, ``they'd go buy one on the way home,'' says Sass.
``It was just a project, at first,'' she says of using the pressure cooker and writing a book of recipes; ``then I fell in love.''