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Pressure Cooker Navy Beans

Pressure cooker

I’ve known for many months now that a pressure cooker had the potential to change my life. Braised brisket in under an hour! Barley in just minutes! I danced around the idea of buying one for most of last fall, surveying friends and acquaintances back in January as to which pressure cookers were the most universally beloved. I diligently read the various reviews on Amazon, hoping to find the best pressure cooker possible. After an exhaustive research process (one might call it compulsive), I settled on a 6 quart Presto cooker, mostly because there wasn’t a clear winner and it was fairly inexpensive (as far as cookware goes at least).

When it arrived, I delightedly unpacked it, ceremoniously rinsed the styrofoam dust off and perched it on a side chair in my dining room. And left it there for the next two and a half months.

Two cups of dried navy beans

Throughout my entire pressure cooker hunt, I was actively suppressing a lifelong fear and mistrust of the entire pressure cooker category. In public, I was excited to try my new toy, while in the privacy of my apartment, I eyed the shiny new cooker with great suspicion. The reason is this…

In 1954, when my mom was seven years old, she spent the afternoon at the movies with her dad and two brothers. When they arrived home, they found my grandmother alone in the house, weeping and tending to a badly burnt face. She had been making pot roast in her pressure cooker and had taken the lid off before the pressure in the pot dropped. Scalding, greasy gravy splashed her face, leaving her dotted with burns that later turned into blisters.

The roast hit the ceiling and left a mark that remained for the entirety of my mom’s childhood. My mother’s younger brother, who was just four at the time, wouldn’t look at my grandmother until all the blisters had healed. Through some miracle, the burns left no visible scars, only invisible ones that prevented the collected Klein/McClellan family from using a pressure cooker. That is, until last Sunday.

Uncooked beans in pressure cooker

Knowing just how much safer pressure cookers are today than in days of past (you physically can’t open mine until the pressure has dropped to safe levels) and wanting to make a batch of chili to eat that evening that utilized some of the dried navy beans I bought the day before, I walked up to my Presto and frog-marched it into the kitchen. I poured in two cups of dried navy beans and five cups of water. Locking the lid into place, I slid the regulator into position and turned on the heat. As soon as the regulator started dancing, I set a timer for 30 minutes and continued to get other chili components prepped.

Finished beans

Half an hour later, when the timer went off, I killed the heat, moved the pot to the sink and ran cold water over it to drop the pressure. When the auto-lock dropped into the safe position, I unlocked the lid and found myself gazing at perfectly cooked navy beans. Success! Dinner was on track and I succeeded in excising two generations of culinary ghosts.

Fridge 4/28/09

I used most of the beans in the chili, but reserved a pint to keep in the fridge for the week, to sprinkle over salads or turn into a quick puree. One batch in and I’m a total pressure cooker convert, already planning to do some garbanzo beans tomorrow night for a batch of homemade hummus (we go through the 8 ounce containers from Trader Joe’s way too fast), which of course, I’ll then store in a jar. When I cook the garbanzos, I also plan on pouring some of them into a couple of wide-mouth pint jars and stashing them in the freezer (leaving plenty of headspace to account for expansion), for those times when even the pressure cooker isn’t quick enough for me.

And, just as I had suspected, my life in the kitchen is forever changed, thankfully for the better.

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Buying Used Jars

Testing Edge

Over the weekend, my friend Shay and I took a little road trip out to Mount Joy, PA, the Lancaster County town where she grew up. We left Philly early, as we had a busy schedule of shopping, lunch at The Tilted Kilt and seeing her parents. Included in our shopping stops were visits to The Country Store (an amazing place, with inexpensive organic flours, grains and spices as well as lots of hard-to-find-in-the-city canning supplies), Weis (they have really good prices on canning jars and liquid pectin) and the Mount Joy Gift and Thrift.

I love visiting thrift stores in less urban areas, because they are almost always an amazing source of cheap canning jars. This latest trip to the Gift and Thrift yielded a bounty of perfectly good, used canning jars, all priced between $.10 and $.35 a piece.

Here’s the thing about buying used canning jars. Sometimes, it’s the best deal ever. However, if you’re not careful, you actually end up spending more than you will on a dozen new jars. Old jars typically will be sold as-is, without rings. A box of new rings and lids runs around $4, so if you spend more than $.50 a jar, adding in the cost of lids and rings brings your dozen ready-to-can jars upwards of $10. In grocery stores, you can typically get a dozen ready-to-use jars for between $7-8 (prices do vary).

The other thing about buying used jars is that you need to take a careful look at them prior to making your purchase. Give them a visual once-over and then run your finger over the rim to make sure there aren’t any chips or imperfections. You won’t be able to get a good seal on a jar if the rim is uneven.

However, there’s also a lot to be said for buying used jars. They are often more unique and charming than the basic jars you get new (check out this fun Bicentennial jar I picked up). It’s a more environmentally sound choice. And your jar dollars go into the coffers of charity shops and individual sellers instead of large corporations.

Go forth and buy jars!

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Pickled Asparagus

Asparagus Tops

Oh asparagus! How I avoided pickling you. I kept you waiting in the fridge for over a week, as you anticipated your spicy vinegar bath. And yet, already you’ve given me so much! After just two days of pickling, you are the perfect balance of crisp and pucker. You make the perfect sidecar to just about any meal. I am enamored.

Blanched Asparagus

That’s right kids, the pickled asparagus has turned out to be a riotous success, despite the fact that I used asparagus that was a tiny bit past its prime (life, why much you always throw distractions into my canning schedule?) and forgot to include the peppercorns in the brine.

Pickling brine

I based my recipe on one from a really terrific book about Southern-style canning called Putting Up. It’s by Stephen Palmer Dowdney, who ran a successful canning business in Charleston, SC for many years (although I’m far more impressed by the fact that he was a college classmate of Pat Conroy, who is one of my favorite authors).

If you’re looking to expand your food preservation reference library (I make it sound so official, don’t I), this is definitely a volume to consider. I like how it’s organized by month, as well as the fact that it has really excellent details on the basics of canning.

Packing jars

Before we get into the recipe, I want to take a moment to encourage all of you to consider pickling something. Possibly even this week. The reason? It is so very simple. You can prep just a single jar at a time, which makes it the perfect first canning project.

Honestly, you don’t even need to do the hot water bath if you’re just making a jar or two for yourself, you can just stash your pickles in the fridge. Making pickles will build your canning confidence and get you excited for more ambitious projects. I’m certainly chomping at the bit for my next pickling project (onions and then okra). If I’ve got you sufficiently excited, my favorite refrigerator pickle recipe is right here.

I’m not going to be giving a jar of these pickles away, since this whole pickling thing is new to me, I want to wait and make sure they continue to be good for the weeks to come before I start handing them out, all willy nilly. However, do not despair. I’ve got another giveaway up my sleeve that will be coming soon.

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Save Your Blanching Water

pitcher-of-blanching-water

I finally found the time to make a batch of pickled asparagus tonight. It was my first attempt at pickling and it was satisfyingly easy. I’ll write up the details tomorrow. However, there’s one little tip I wanted to share with you all.

You see, the particular recipe I followed called for the asparagus to be blanched for just ten seconds prior to being packed into the jars. After I retrieved all the asparagus bits from the pot of water, I set aside the now bright green blanching water and poured it into a pitcher to cool down. Tomorrow, when it’s room temperature, I’ll water my houseplants with it, giving them a hit of the nutrients that transferred from the asparagus into the water.

As we all move forward into the heart of the pickling and canning season, this is a great way to reuse that vitamin-rich water (you can also do this when you steam/blanch veggies for dinner).

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Yogurt & Olive Oil Cake with Orange

nearly-empty-pan

Each time I find myself wanting to post a recipe here that is not jar-related, I tie myself up in knots for a moment, worrying that it is unseemly to break out from the blogging rubric I’ve set up for myself.  Then I remind myself that this is my blog and I can do with it what I want. Besides, there are times when all you want a simple little loaf cake to go along side those jams and marmalades. And for those moments, this is a near-perfect treat.

I baked this one up on Sunday morning, intentionally splitting the batter unevenly between two half-sized glass loaf pans. The larger was destined for a friend who had a baby just three weeks ago and the smaller one stayed home. Una (the new mama) is the type of person I’ve always admired. She is so good about taking time for herself, even if it’s only a few moments, and, for as long as I’ve known her, has often done so in the afternoons with a slice of something sweet and a cup of coffee with milk. Goodness knows that this new baby will ruffle her previous patterns, but I felt like it was the least I could do to take her a treat that would allow her that recall those afternoon moments of calm.

The smaller loaf, the one that stayed home, was eaten up in short order as well. I left Scott alone at home with it while I was visiting Una, and when I returned, a big hunk was missing. We whittled it down to the final slice you see above before I realized I wanted to grab a picture. We split that last piece just before turning out the lights and heading to bed.

It’s a good, simple little cake that I adapted from a Dorie Greenspan recipe. I’ve dialed down the sugar a bit, wanting to ensure that it wouldn’t be cloying with the addition of jam and swapped out her lime zest for orange (I had two oranges and no limes on a Sunday morning, so I made do). I also used a bit less oil than she called for, because my yogurt was unusually runny and I didn’t want the batter to be too loose.

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Cucumber and Red Onion Salad

cucumber-red-onion-salad

It’s been a quiet week in my kitchen. Between a marathon day of cooking last Sunday, the hit on the head I took Monday and a Wednesday night dinner of sushi with two of my favorite girls, I just haven’t been making even the very basics. In fact, Tuesday was the only night I made dinner at home and, in keeping with the harried nature of the week, it was a meal straight out of my childhood. Baked chicken, steamed broccoli and a small salad of marinated cucumber and red onion.

When I was growing up, my mom cooked dinner nearly every night. She served up an easy to prepare and family-pleasing rotation of hamburger scrambles, baked chicken legs and broiled salmon, accompanied by at least one green vegetable and the occasional starch (brown rice was often a supporting player). We ate a lot of steamed broccoli (dipped in a little pool of mayonnaise), string beans (with a pat of butter and a sprinkle of garlic powder) and cauliflower (mashed with a few spoonfuls of cream cheese).

One side salad we had often was a quick little thing, made from sliced cucumber and dressed with red wine vinegar, olive oil, dried dill, a pinch of sugar, garlic powder, salt and pepper. She’d make it (always in the same, square stainless steel bowl) at least half an hour before dinner was on the table, to give the cucumbers a chance to soften and mellow in the vinaigrette. As the years progressed, this was the first of her recipes that I co-opted and turned into something of my own, adding slivered red onion and, during the season, hunks of ripe tomato (shaved radish is also wonderful in here).

Despite the changes I’ve made, this salad never fails to give me a satisfying sense of culinary continuity. A favorite thrift store even offered up a mate to my mother’s shallow square bowl, allowing me to match my presentation to that of memory.

The reason I include this recipe here is that is can be classified as a quick pickle and would be quite at home tucked away in a jar (leftovers are delightful). It’s best made with English cucumbers, but does work nicely with your basic garden cucumber, as long as you peel and seed it.

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