Archive for September, 2009

PSI: My Kitchen – The Art of the Pressure Cooker

Some Background

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The last time I was at my grandpa’s house, I was digging around in his kitchen, and found a pressure cooker. I had seen it when I was a kid, so I started asking a bunch of questions. It seemed like an archaic yet fascinating piece of gear.

I asked a few of my cooking friends if they had any pressure cooker experience.
“Are you kidding? Those things are dangerous! They can blow up your whole house!”
Wow. You had me at dangerous.

So, I had a quest. Find out if I can still buy a pressure cooker, and if so, obtain one as quickly as possible.

Yes, I know. Not the most frugal game plan, but times were different then. In retrospect, the purchase did end up being a frugal buy. The purpose of this site is not only to save money (hence frugality) but to save time and effort (hence painless). So, forgive my impulse buy, but do know that it turned out to be a smart move.

I also believe that cooking is not only frugal, but it is a sport. It is a passion. It is the future. It is history. Learning to cook is one of the few skills that can save your life, get chicks, get guys, save a buck, and lay the groundwork for a lifetime of memories.

What is it?

The idea of a pressure cooker is that instead of cooking food slowly at low temperature as does its cousin the crock pot, it cooks food quickly using high pressure.
It’s just a heavy cooking pot, with a lid that fastens to it securely, and lets the pressure build. Yeah, scary, but really not. Stick with me.

Safety

Before I go any further, let me quickly discuss safety. In looking at my grandpa’s pressure cooker, the only heat escape is via the little hole at the top. The one that is covered by the little valve. If something were to plug that hole tight enough, you could conceivably have beef stew rain down on the entire neighborhood.
With the pressure cooker I found, there were three other places for the built up pressure to escape, should there be a problem. There are two extra valves on the lid, and one on the side. So, in reality, the perfect storm would really need to be more than perfect to blow the place up. I deem them safe.

What Will I Gain?

The pressure cooker adds yet another convenience to your kitchen. Things that normally take a very long time (hours) to cook on a normal stove can be done in about half an hour. This half hour includes all prep and cooking time.

Don’t be taken in by the hype on the box. The box will make claims that your food will cook in ten minutes. It will, but there’s more to it than that. Keep that in mind, and you won’t be disappointed.

The fact that you can cook dishes faster means that you can feel free to cook things during that week that you would normally reserve for a Sunday dinner. Some of the things I consistently cook on weeknights are:

  • Beef Stew
  • Carnitas
  • Chicken Soup – from scratch
  • Pot Roast
  • Shredded Beef
  • Pulled Pork
  • Chile Verde
  • Menudo
  • Beans!
  • Stock

The list goes on and on, but the idea is that hearty one-pot meat dishes are tossed around by the pressure cooker.

I’m Interested, What Next?


Okay, here’s what I did next. Since I have a prime account on amazon, I decided to start shopping there. I started looking around, and found that I had no idea what I was looking at, so it was back to the drawing board. I headed to the public library, and grabbed a few books on pressure cooking. Among my haul was a book by Lorna Sass called Pressure Perfect: Two Hour Taste in Twenty Minutes Using Your Pressure Cooker.
This book proved invaluable in my pressure quest. I checked it out so many times that I was banned from checking it out any further. I bought a copy, and still use it to this day.

To save you a little time, these are the things that I found most important in selecting a pressure cooker:

  • Material – There are pressure cookers made of both aluminum and stainless steel. I picked stainless for durability. I was also afraid that aluminum might scratch off and get into my food.
  • Pressure – Man of the modern pressure cookers have several pressure settings. I decided to get a cooker with only one setting, for simplicity’s sake. I have not regretted this, hundreds of dishes later.
  • Size – You can get sizes from 4 quart to 30 quart. Looking through the cookbooks, I found that for the most part, all recipes are written for a 6 quart cooker. I have not regretted this either.

So, there really isn’t much to it. The one pictured to the right is the one I chose, and have had no complaints. I love my pressure cooker.

I got my Cooker. What Now?

This is where it gets exciting. Your best bet is to pick up a few books on the subject. Like I said, the Lorna Sass book is the one I liked best. I would probably steer clear of the internet for at least a few weeks in your quest for recipes. I have found that a great many of the recipes are obviously untested, and make no sense at all when you read them. Once you cook with a good book, you will begin to intuitively see when a recipe makes no sense.

There is a good deal of information housed in those books, and I don’t have the space to repeat it, but I have found a few tips that I learned with my cooker, and they might be useful in your kitchen:


  • Herbs – Use whole herbs – even whole cloves of garlic. It’s like a pressure cooker in there. Actually, it IS a pressure cooker in there. The essential oils from herbs and spices tend to dissipate much more quickly. Using whole herbs, and even sauteing them in olive oil for a second makes the flavors more tenacious.
  • Salt Modestly – on your first go around, add only a small amount of salt. Finish salting your dish after it has cooked. For some reason, food sometimes gets saltier as it cooks.
  • Brown Meats – The pressure cooker will not brown your food. The color of foods (especially chicken) is sometimes weird and scary. There are lots of tricks on how to artificially brown meats. I just like to do it the old fashioned way: in a cast iron skillet, with olive oil and onions.
  • Watch your pressure release – There are a few ways to release the pressure in your cooker. As long as your food is under pressure, it’s cooking. Good recipes know this, and have this time built in to the cooking time. Read your recipe closely, and mind that pressure release method.
  • Seasoning – You will find that your food is probably a little under seasoned. The herbs and spices you added will be infused in your food, but the main character of your seasonings will need to be adjusted. After your food is cooked, feel free to add more seasoning. You can used crushed and grounds spices at this point.

So! I hope this gives you the gist of pressure cooking, and gives you the push to grab a cooker, grab a book, and let ‘er rip!

Final Note

I should add a few frugal notes here.

The most frugal way to get books is to go to the library. This is what I did. I just found that I liked the book so much, that I had no choice but to buy it.

As for pressure cookers, you can probably find one at a garage sale. The only caveat here is that the seal on the cooker is very important. If the seal does not work, you will not build pressure, and you could get hurt by escaping steam. In this case, for your first cooker, I would definitely buy new.

Link Roundup – Week of 9/21/09

This week’s frugal roundup

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Photo: Eric Martin

Save Money on Shaving with These Razor Tricks – Wisebread has a great article this week on keeping your razor in good shape longer. Lots of neat little tips. I need to try keeping blades oiled and see what happens.

How to Cook with Under a Buck: A Talk with the 99-Cent Chef – At first, I thought it was 99 cents for the whole meal, but it’s 99 cent ingredients. It’s a little more painful than I would like to try, but it’s a good read with some good links.

Can You Live Without a Car? – A neat little treatment on what life would be like sans automobile. The part I like is the bicycling. I love my little bicycle. No lie!

20 cheap and fun date ideas – Of all these, I think I like bicycling and stargazing the best.

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Gift Cards – The Least Frugal Gift

Some Background

I am impossible to buy gifts for. Most everything I could want, I already have. Not that I am a millionaire, it’s just that my needs are minimal. When I really do want something, it is usually something that is impossible to convey to someone not embroiled in whatever hobby the gift could be for. So, when I need some new weird thing, I usually end up saving up for it myself and buy it.

This means that when it comes time for me to get gifts, people usually resort to getting me a gift card of some sort. There is nothing wrong with this, and I like getting them, but over the past few years, I have found that they are a sham. The ultimate sham.

Cards I have gotten

I have gotten cards from Amazon, Panera, Visa Gift Cards, Wal Mart, and many other cards of that sort. Although the store centric cards have not posed a problem, the Visa cards are definitely 100% sham. Store centric cards are fine if they are for a store that you usually buy from, but are a little bit harder to use for less frequent shopping trips. The issuing stores are banking on you forgetting it at home, or ultimately forgetting about it altogether.

You would think that a Visa gift card would be the most effective way to transfer money as a gift, because the recipient is not locked into a certain store. It’s just money that you can spend anywhere, right? Wrong.

Keep in mind that i am writing this based on experience with about fifteen such gift cards, and they all have some serious pitfalls.


The Rub

They Cost Money

When you buy a $25 gift card for someone, you have to pay $2.50. This may not sound like a lot of money, but it’s 10% of the face value.

They Cost Money to Upkeep

All cards have a shelf life before they start costing to upkeep. After several months (from as few as 7 to as many as 13) the cards start losing value on the first of each month. The lowest I have seen was $1.50 per month, and they go up do about $2.50 a month.

For me, I have found that I put a card in my wallet, and forgot about it. I went to spend money on the card a few months later, and found that I had lost $10 off the card! So, in the time that it was stewing in my wallet, the issuing company made $12.50 off that card. 50% of the face value!

Once a card runs below about $7, it’s useless!

So, you go out to lunch once. You pick up a cheap lunch another day. You end up with $6 left on the card. Now, the conundrum. What do you do with this money? If you try to split a bill somewhere, in most cases, it will not work. I am not sure why it doesn’t but the transaction gets denied. Without fail.

Currently, in my wallet, I have three cards, with an average of $7 on them. I should have $21 to spend, but no matter how I try to split it up, I cannot charge up to the lowest whole dollar amount on my card. Over the next few months, these cards will tank a few bucks a month until there is nothing left.

Do Everyone a Favor

Do the math. In the best case, you can end up with the following situation:

ChargeAmount
Initial Value$25
Purchase Fee-$2.50
Unusuable Leftovers-$2.50
Real Value$20

So, in the best case, you fork over 20% of the face value to the issuing company.

In my usual case:

ChargeAmount
Initial Value$25
Purchase Fee-$2.50
Unusable Leftovers-$7
Money I can spend$15.50

Note that that extra seven bucks usually gets soaked in that monthly service fee. So, the issuing company made 62% on that card. When you add up all the people who get such cards, that is a great investment… For the issuing company.

So, do everyone a favor. When you find that person that you want to give a gift to. The guy who has everything. Write him a check, and keep the middle man out of the game.

I still remember getting that $5 check for my birthday when I was a kid. I would go out and buy an album or some 45′s. For my $5 gift from Auntie Lori, I got $5 worth of value.

Thinking about how the gift card system works now, If i were that same 8 year old now, I would be confused. And sad.

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The Frugal Pantry – Kick the Can Game

Some Background

While watching the news the other day, I ran across a story of a woman who decided that, besides milk, she would not go to the grocery store for a month. Her family would eat everything that had accumulated in the refrigerator, pantry, and freezer for the month. The endgame was, she ended up saving $800 in grocery bills that month.

At first glance, it sounded like a neat idea, but I quickly remembered that I have been doing the frugal kitchen thing for quite some time, and did not have endless stockpiles of Hungry Man meals at my disposal. I let the idea drop.

Until.

Looking into my pantry, I realized that it was overflowing with purchases that I had made without really thinking. I also had things stuffed into corners of the pantry that were picked up by a more impulsive shopping partner. My whole kitchen could maybe make three meals, tops, but the accumulation of canned kitsch was impressive.

I decided that the herd of cans and packets needed to be thinned. Not like a lion casing the joint for a wobbly zebra, but a slower and more complex hunt. It was on.

Some Definitions

Fumbling through my dusty pile, I realized that there were only a few categories that these cans fit in:

  • I’d Hit That! – These are foods that I really would eat. I usually forget that I have them in the house, so I buy them again. And again. Cans of tomato paste, tomato sauce, italian sauce, green beans. You get the idea. Anything you would possibly eat (even if it’s at 2AM after last call) goes in this category.
  • No Way, Jose – These are the things no one in your house would touch. Some leftovers from out of town visitors, an ex flame who had this thing for cans of pickled hobbit knuckles, canned okra. That kind of food goes in this category.
  • Expired – Yes, even modern food preservation techniques can’t be stretched into eternity. Sooner or later, your pickled beets will be magically transformed into purple botulism death.

Armed with these definitions, the rules are simple.

Rules of the Game

Here’s where it gets interesting.

While you are making your artful frugal grocery list , each meal must address one of those mystery cans.

Take a good hard look at your shelves, and pick one can for each day. Once you do this for a week, you might even want to do two cans a day. Take that one can, and categorize it:

  • I’d Hit That! – This can goes into one of your meals. Craft your menu around using that can for a meal. Hit a few cans of soup for lunch, and you can save a pile of money!
  • No Way, Jose! – While canned smoked ox tongue may sound horrible to you, chances are that if they made a whole canning factory to put said tongues into said cans, someone out there thinks this is a delicacy. Put this in a box. This box is destined for charity. There are probably several charities in your town which would gladly take your cast offs.
  • Expired! – Well, do us all a favor and throw this out.

Do this for a few weeks, and watch your pantry become magically cleaner!

Endgame

Since I no longer stockpile my refrigerator or freezer with unnecessary purchases, they are both in good shape. If you are new to restraining from rote and impulse grocery shopping, you might want to play this same game with your refrigerator.

It beats the pants of cleaning everything all at once, and I think it encourages some actual thought before randomly pitching things.

Advanced Game

For those of you who think I am a little overboard in my descriptions about things you may find in your kitchen, take a look at one of my favorite blogs, Steve, Don’t Eat It! .

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