October 26, 2017

Dear friends,

I am mechanically impaired. Closing a tea ball is difficult. Manual can openers are Chinese puzzles to me. So it’s no surprise that I left my new Instant Pot in the box for several months before unpacking it. I could sense trouble.

The good news is that I did eventually unpack it and on Saturday cooked pork carnitas for tacos in 11 minutes. Unbelievable. Of course, that doesn’t count the 15 minutes it took for the Instant Pot to “come to pressure” or the 15 minutes to reduce the sauce after cooking. But still.

The bad news is that my first test of the pot — a venison roast — was a disaster. I read the instruction book cover-to-cover but the pressure gauge is so weensy that I never did see it pop up (it pops about an eighth of an inch, I later determined). I was afraid to remove the lid so I left the roast in the pot for two hours, during which time it continued to cook (not “keep warm”) until even the dog wouldn’t eat it.

My second try last weekend went more smoothly but still had glitches. For example, it took me 10 minutes to figure out how to lock the lid. Yes, I had locked it before. Don’t judge.

Will I use my Instant Pot again? Yes, but only because so many of you do, and I feel obligated to provide recipes. I know many of you have bought Instant Pots because the multi-cooker is a genuine phenomenon. Sales began surging in the summer of 2016 and rose so fast — by word of mouth and primarily through mail order on Amazon — that the item was named product of the year for its increase in market share.

A group of engineers formed the Instant Pot Co. in Canada in 2008 to design an electric pressure cooker with built-in safety controls that old stove-top pressure cookers do not have. In other words, this is not your mother’s exploding pressure cooker. The Instant Pot will automatically shut off before the pressure reaches a dangerous level. The pot also can be used as a slow cooker, rice steamer, yogurt maker and probably a coffee pot. But it’s the fear-free pressure cooker function that excites most buyers.

The Instant Pot and its imitators are available in stores as well as online, in a variety of sizes and with varied features. I will not provide a buying guide here; plenty of information is available on the Internet.

As a neophyte myself, neither will I instruct you in its use. An excellent primer has been written by Melissa Clark of the New York Times at: https://cooking.nytimes.com/guides/46-how-to-use-an-instant-pot. Her cautions include cutting way down — by half or two-thirds — the liquid in a regular recipe when making it in a pressure cooker. Liquid does not evaporate. Another crucial tip is to make sure the vent on the lid is not just turned off, but is locked in place before programming the pot. This is a step that is glossed over in the instruction booklet, and is overlooked by many first-time users. Me, for example.

If anyone has a good Instant Pot recipe or would like me to adapt a favorite recipe to the Instant Pot, send it to me. I can’t print or adapt them all, but I’ll do what I can. Meanwhile, try my 11-minute carnitas recipe. With the additions I suggest, you can make one of those trendy, upscale tacos for a fraction of the cost in a restaurant.

I snuggled the carnitas — little glazed cubes of meat — in corn tortillas briefly fried in a skillet just long enough to change the texture of the tortillas (I dislike those crumbly raw things) but not enough to make them crispy-stiff. The meat is topped with quick-pickled onions, crumbled Mexican cheese, cilantro and a squeeze of lime. The final touch is a spoonful of the spicy reduced carnitas cooking liquid. Yeow.

I bought the crumbly cheese, queso fresco, at a Mexican grocery store. You could substitute feta if desired.

If you don’t own a pressure cooker, the carnitas recipe may be adapted to stove-top cooking. Just toss the carnitas ingredients into a pot with double the liquid and simmer the meat and spices over low heat, covered, until the meat is tender. Remove the meat and boil the liquid until it is reduced to about 1 cup. The inspiration for the carnitas, although not the exact recipe, is from Coyote Cafe by Mark Miller.

PRESSURE-COOKER CARNITAS

  • 2 lbs. boneless pork loin, untrimmed
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 tbsp. mild or medium pure chile powder
  • 1 1/2 tsps. salt
  • 4 cloves garlic. chopped
  • 1/3 cup chopped onion
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 1 tsp. fennel seed
  • 2 tsp. cumin seed
  • 1 stick Mexican canela or cinnamon, about 3 inches
  • 1 tbsp. oregano

Cut pork, including fat, into 3/4-inch cubes. Place in pressure cooker pot with the water, chile powder, salt, garlic and onion.

In a dry skillet over medium-high heat, toast the fennel, cumin, cinnamon stick and oregano, shaking pan often, until spices are fragrant, about 2 minutes. Grind spices (including cinnamon or canela) in a spice grinder to a powder. I use a small coffee grinder I reserve for that purpose.

Stir spices into meat mixture.

Lock lid into place, lock vent in closed position and program Instant Pot for the “meat” setting, then immediately adjust the time to 11 minutes. After the time expires and the gauge pops up, vent the steam manually and remove the lid. The meat should be very tender. If not, replace the lid, reprogram and cook a few minutes longer. When done, remove meat with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Re-program Instant Pot to sauté and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Return meat to pan and cook a few minutes longer, until the meat is glazed with the sauce. Transfer meat to one bowl and sauce to another. Makes enough for about 20 tacos.

Note: If your pressure cooker does not have a sauté function, transfer meat and sauce to a pan and boil on the stove, uncovered, until meat is glazed and sauce has reduced to about 1 cup.

 

PORK CARNITAS TACOS WITH PICKLED ONIONS, QUESO FRESCO AND LIME

 

Image
  • 1 vertical half of a large yellow onion, peeled
  • 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • Canola oil
  • 8 corn tortillas
  • Pork carnitas and sauce (see previous recipe)
  • Crumbled queso fresco, or feta, 1 to 2 tbsp. per taco
  • Handful of cilantro leaves
  • 1 lime, cut into 8 wedges

Cut the onion into very thin horizontal slices. Place in a small bowl with the vinegar and water, submerging the onion. Let stand while preparing the tacos.

Heat a scant quarter inch of oil in a skillet large enough to hold a corn tortilla. When hot, cook the tortillas one at a time in the oil, turning with tongs and folding in half. Cook just until the tortillas are blistered but do not brown. Drain on paper towels.

Place a thick layer of carnitas in the bottom of a taco shell. Top with 1 to 2 tablespoons of cheese, some of the drained onion, some cilantro and a squeeze of lime. Drizzle with a spoonful of the carnitas sauce. Continue with remaining taco shells. Makes 8 tacos, or 4 servings, with meat left for about 16 more tacos.

GUT CHECK

What I cooked at home last week:
Coconut curry chicken soup; pork loin roast with apple-corn bread stuffing and cider cream sauce, kale sautéed with garlic; pork carnitas tacos with queso fresco,  pickled onions and lime; two sugar-free pumpkin pies.

What I ate in (or from) restaurants last week:
Half of a steak and bacon sub from Subway; half of a chicken and avocado melt sandwich and an apple at Panera; an Indian buffet (samosa, hot pepper pakora, chicken tikka masala, curried eggplant, naan) at Bombay Sitar in Jackson Township; pepperoni pizza from Rizzi’s in Copley Township; a chili dog with onions and french fries with chili and cheese at the Hot Dog Shoppe in East Liverpool.

THE MAILBAG

From Shirley, Cuyahoga Falls:
For those who find your peanut butter and tomato sandwich combination appalling — don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it. I’ve been eating peanut butter, tomato and mayo sandwiches for as long as I remember. I’m 83 years old now and can’t wait until home-grown tomatoes are in our stores. That sandwich is probably my favorite of all time!

From Rachel M.:
I dig PB and tomatoes, too. PB with sharp Cheddar on Italian bread is surprisingly tasty, and PB with Clausen dill pickle sandwich slices (patted as dry as possible) is an old favorite. Nope, not pregnant; just a fan of some weird combos.

Dear Shirley and Rachel: Thanks for helping me feel normal. And you may want to try PB and thin-sliced onion some time.

From Michele:
I was reading your pumpkin pie mug recipe and wanted to know where you are finding superfine sugar. I have searched high and low with no success.

Can’t wait to see more of your mug recipes. Hopefully, some are waist-friendly.

Dear Michele: I wish. All of the recipes are desserts. Not a low-cal number among them.

As for superfine sugar, that’s one of the many quandaries I faced while writing the book. I used superfine sugar because it dissolves quickly — a plus when the cooking time is just 1 1/2 to 2 minutes.

Microwave mug cakes made with regular sugar are gritty, I found. But a couple of years into testing recipes, I suddenly couldn’t find superfine sugar in stores anymore. Domino and a couple of other manufacturers were still making it, but most stores didn’t sell enough to justify the shelf space, I was told.

The solution, if you’re unable to find the sugar, is to grind some regular sugar in a food processor.  Process 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar nonstop for 30 seconds to produce 1 cup superfine sugar.

 
From Cheryl S.:
A couple things going on. The first has to do with aged balsamic vinegar, which can be expensive. America’s Test Kitchen says you can “age” your own. Actually, it’s just a reduction but tastes identical to an aged one I recently sampled. To an uneducated palate such as mine, it was fine.

In a small saucepan combine 1 cup inexpensive balsamic vinegar, 3 tablespoons sugar and 3 tablespoons ruby port. A 4-inch sprig of fresh rosemary is optional. Heat just below a simmer until reduced by about half. I made two batches, one with rosemary and one without. Both were delicious, but the one with rosemary was outstanding.

On another note, I despise beets — always have. I think they taste like dirt. But I found a recipe that makes them tolerable if not good. I made this recipe with the non-rosemary vinegar.

HONEY-GINGER BALSAMIC GLAZED BEETS

  • 1 lb. medium-sized fresh beets, scrubbed and trimmed
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 2 tbsp. peeled, chopped ginger (or more)
  • 2 tbsp. aged balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. honey, or to taste

Line a cake pan or other oven pan with foil. Splash in about 1/4 cup water, add the beets and seal with foil. Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes or until tender. Test by piercing with a sharp knife. Remove from oven.

When cool enough to handle but still warm, peel beets and cut into thick slices.  Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add ginger and cook for a minute or two, just until fragrant. Add beet and vinegar and cook until beets are hot and glazed. Stir in honey.

Just thought I’d share and see what you thought (and maybe a wine suggestion).

 

Dear Cheryl: I like beets BECAUSE they taste like the earth. Not dirt. Earth. See how I make them palatable? It’s all about perception. As for wine, how about a big, earthy, fruit-forward zinfandel such as  Ridge? I like the “aged” balsamic recipe. Real aged balsamic is beyond expensive.

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