I'll admit it: I'm stuck in the past, using a crockpot to cook meals. And I learned at chef Lynda Lacher's One Pot Cooking Class at Cherry Creek Whole Foods last night that I am guilty of many crockpot sins, the worst of which is not using a pressure cooker to cut my meal prep time down to minutes rather than hours.
The Whole Foods -- it's usually so expensive that it deserves a "the" in its title -- hosts free cooking classes several times a month, often with seasonal, vegetarian-vegan and/or good nutrition themes, and this particular class was well-timed, with stews and soups perfect for winter...if winter ever returns.
Lacher, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu and did her externship in France, is currently an instructor at the Nutrition Therapy Institute and she is short, sweet and to the point, with her charming Midwestern accent -- she pronounces "root" as "rut" -- and her huge, ten-inch chef's knife.
"I like a big knife," she said. "I don't like messing around."
She started the class with a fast but comprehensive overview of everything you need to know about owning and operating a pressure cooker. Technically ,the class covered crockpot cooking as well, but it quickly became obvious that pressure cookers are superior in every way -- the newer models, anyway.
"Don't ever use the old aluminum pressure cookers--don't even pot a plant in one," said Lacher.
Her recipes included Beef Stew with Sherry Vegetables, Gingery Lentil Soup and Chai Spiced Rice Pudding, and I was skeptical of the projected cook times. Twenty minutes to make a pot of beef stew? Fifteen minutes for lentil soup? That's crazy talk. But I watched and learned...
Lacher cut veggies and lightly browned beef stew meat, then placed ingredients and liquids in the two pressure cooker pots, put the lids on...and that was it. A student asked how the meals didn't burn in the pots, and Lacher explained that the moist-heat cooking with lots of liquid also produces and traps all the moisture from the vegetables and meat, so nothing gets burned -- or "barnt" as they say in the Midwest.
During the twenty minutes that the food was cooking, Lacher revealed the biggest sins of crockpot cooking.
Sin number one: using frozen ingredients. Crap, I've committed this one. I've been in a hurry and dumped frozen chicken parts and cream of mushroom soup in my crockpot.
Sin two: Not cutting enough fat off of meats, so that a lake of grease pools on top of the dish. Double crap -- those same chicken parts are usually leg quarters, covered with fatty skin that I'm too lazy to trim, and I often resort to paper-toweling the hell out of my Chicken a la Jenn.
The third crockpot sin is not putting the harder veggies on the bottom. I am supposed to place the carrot hunks into the pot first, and the spinach on the top. Mixing it all together in the aforementioned cream of mushroom soup is just easier. Crap.
Sin four is putting any dairy in later -- and I swish milk around in the cream of mushroom can without a second thought. Quadruple crap. I needed an intervention, and this class was obviously divinely inspired.
The twenty minutes were up, Lacher turned off the pots, released the pressure from both, put them in an ice bath, and I was convinced that the food would need more time. It didn't -- and I was genuinely stunned to discover that the stew meat was tender-to-falling-apart, the mushrooms, parsnips and squash were perfect and toothsome, and the broth was beautiful. The lentils, sweet potatoes and tomatoes were perfectly cooked as well, and she added the fresh spinach and parsley at the end so they retained fine color.
I was blinded by science and impressed with technology. Sure, pressure cookers have been around for quite a while, but I'm as slow as my digital crock pot when it comes to catching on. That same stew would have taken hours in my crockpot.
After adding the requisite cornstarch thickener, Lacher introduced the rice pudding, which was made in a crockpot, and according to the recipe, it took four to five hours. It looked and smelled delicious -- plenty of brown rice, vanilla and warm, woody spices -- but the extended cooking time just seemed like an unnecessary pain in the ass after watching the slick and speedy pressure cookers do their thing.
The sample food was plated and served, and Lacher tasted the lentils and exclaimed, "Damn good!"
I couldn't have said it better, and she was absolutely right -- everything was fantastic. I wanted a pressure cooker, and she told us that a decent model would cost about $90. The smaller one she used for the lentils had apparently survived for seventeen years, so it seems like a cost-effective investment.
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"You can use cheaper cuts of meat in pressure cookers, because of the way they work, and save money," she suggested.
Saving time, saving cash, and getting great meals all at the same time -- 'nuff said. I'm buying a pressure cooker.