Pressure Cooking : Don't be afraid. Its the microwave of the '90s! : THE TIME IS RIGHT FOR A PRESSURE COOKER COMEBACK. FOR FAST, LOW-FAT COOKING THAT RETAINS ESSENTIAL FLAVORS. IT CAN'T BE BEAT. : Great for Vegetarians too!

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you tell 10 people that you use a pressure cooker, nine will have the same response: "Aren't you afraid?"

I asked that same question myself a year ago when a pal bragged that rich, pressure-cooked chicken stock took her just 30 minutes to make. After all, pressure cookers have an awful reputation. They blow up, don't they?

They used to. One of my earliest memories is finding my grandmother perched on a ladder in her farmhouse kitchen, furiously scrubbing sticky oatmeal off the glossy white ceiling. But that explosion didn't deter my Swedish grandmother.

Would I let my fear of pressure cookers keep me from making that stock? I knew pressure cookers are supposed to be totally hassle-free now, that safety features have been engineered in even the least expensive models, that pressure cookers don't blow their tops anymore. Still, when my new pressure cooker arrived by UPS, it took me more than a week to open the box.

I carefully read the instruction booklet, which went to great lengths to say that the cooker couldn't explode because it had an emergency release valve on the cover. At least I wouldn't be maimed or burned.

Even so, I kept thinking about Ricky and Fred cooking arroz con pollo for Lucy and Ethel. The chicken hit the ceiling when the pressure cooker blew its lid.

I tried to remember more positive pressure-cooker trivia. In the 1946 edition of "The Joy of Cooking," Irma S. Rombauer boasts that a pressure cooker permits a cook to scoff at time. Julia Child uses one, and still claims it's the best thing for hard-boiling eggs. Even actress Leslie Caron says there are only three things she needs to prepare gourmet meals these days: an egg beater, a food processor and a pressure cooker.

Feeling confident, I decided to try my new cooker out on something easy--a batch of tamales I had stashed in the freezer. I poured some water into the pot, placed a few tamales into the steamer basket and locked the lid in place. But when I turned on the burner, I stood on the other side of the room. The red button on the handle popped up in a few minutes, just the way the instruction booklet said it would. A column of steam escaped, making a faint whooshing sound that was not nearly as loud as the chug-a-chug of my grandmother's cooker. Five minutes later, I had hot, fluffy tamales.

If I had steamed the frozen tamales, I'd probably still be pacing by the stove. Zapped in the microwave, the tamales would have ended up dry and hard, just like practically everything else cooked in that other time-saving device.

Encouraged, I began experimenting with other recipes. It wasn't long before I too was turning out flavorful chicken stock in 30 minutes, brown rice in 20 minutes, lamb stew in nine minutes, even creamy risotto in five minutes.

Now I'm hooked.

"It's ridiculous," says Judy Montgomery-Lofaro, a housewife and mother. She inherited a pressure cooker from her mother-in-law. "Once you start using the pressure cooker, you get sucked in. I used to have to be home by 3 in order to have dinner on the table for my family. Now I can come home at 5 and make chicken cacciatore , start to finish, in an hour and 15 minutes.

"I can't live without my pressure cooker. I use it every day."

The ultimate wedding gift of the '40s may have been an aluminum pressure cooker. Pressure cookers were in every kitchen, next to the coffeepot, toaster and waffle iron. And yet, pressure cookers had one big problem: clogged vents.

Manufacturers warned against cooking foods such as cereal, rice and macaroni in pressure cookers because the froth and foam tended to block the vents. But some cooks paid no heed. Their pressure cookers erupted like Old Faithful.

But pressure cookers aren't dangerous if you follow the instructions. And the safety mechanisms built into today's models make accidents practically impossible. The new lids must be locked in place before the pressure will rise; they won't unlock until all the pressure has been dissipated. A release valve on the lid prevents pressure buildup. So even if you forget to adjust the heat when full pressure is reached--or if a vent clogs--an over-pressure plug and back-up vents release excess steam. Cooking with a late-model pressure cooker is no more dangerous than broiling a chop or baking a cake.

"Everyone thinks of pressure cookers as something their mother used in the '50s and they blew up in your face," says chef Ann Gentry. "But that is not the truth at all. They are safe and are a great way of cooking things quickly."

She uses pressure cookers for the grains served at her Santa Monica organic-food restaurant, Real Food Daily. "They steam the vegetable or grain fully so that the great sweetness and flavor of the food will come out, I find, better than steaming, boiling or sauteing."

All pressure cookers work on the same principle: When liquid boils, it produces steam. A rubber gasket inside the edge of the lid traps the steam when the cooker is properly locked. The steam builds up pressure, and since it can't escape, the temperature rises. First five pounds, then 10 pounds, and soon 15 pounds of pressure is generated. At 15 pounds--full pressure--the internal temperature of the cooker has reached 250 degrees. (The boiling point of water is only 212 degrees.)

The increased pressure goes to work on tough, fibrous foods, making them fork-tender. Flavors are retained; vitamins and minerals are preserved. At the same time, super-heated steam created by the high temperatures cooks the food quickly--at least two-thirds faster than conventional methods.

"The time savings are astronomical," says Lorna Sass, author of two books on pressure cooking--"Cooking Under Pressure" (Morrow: $18.95), now in its eighth printing, and "Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure" (Morrow: $23). "You can get chickpeas tender in 16 minutes. If the pressure cooker was an appliance that people had no history with, it would have caught on better. But the fear factor is still very strong."

Manufacturers' efforts to put consumer safety concerns to rest are finally paying off. The pressure cooker's popularity plunged in the '60s and '70s, partly due to fear--and increasing fascination with fast foods. Now pressure cooker sales are on the rise, says Hugh Rushing, spokesman for the Cookware Manufacturers Assn., an Alabama-based group that represents the interests of cookware, bakeware and kitchenware manufacturers. Although there are no specific sales figures, Rushing estimates pressure cooker sales at less than 10% of all cookware sales, which were $958 million in 1994, up from $884 million reported the previous year. "There's no doubt about it," says Rushing, "pressure cooker sales are growing. It started a couple of years ago. I think it's a combination of improved technology of the product and the fact that there's a whole new generation of people out there who don't know they won't blow up."

"It's just such a right-on appliance for now," says Sass. "People want to eat healthier but they can't quite figure out how to make that happen in their lives."

In recent years, many have become committed to lowering the fat and cholesterol in their diets. Besides eating well, they also want to eat inexpensively, copiously and quickly. Because the pressure cooker creates such full-flavored foods with little or no fat in little or no time, it is the perfect appliance for the nutrition-obsessed '90s.

"When I roast a chicken, I throw all the leftovers in the pressure cooker and make stock out of it," says Christine Vertosick, who teaches pressure cooking classes and helps friends get over what she calls their "pressure cooker anxiety." "It's so cheap (to use)," she says, "and (the food you make in it) tastes so much better than the canned stuff."

What's more, the pressure cooker allows flavors to meld and is great for steaming longer-cooking root vegetables.

"It's made me more adventurous in the kitchen," says Lisa Cook, a production manager for film and television. "To be able to whip up parsnip soup in 10 minutes and have it taste so fabulous, so exotic, I feel like I'm cheating."

A pressure cooker can't be used for everything, though. Quick-cooking foods such as fish or corn, for example, are best cooked by other methods. A minute too long and you get mush. You don't get that amber, caramelized glaze to your meats and vegetables you would from braising, either. And you certainly wouldn't make an omelet in a pressure cooker.

But if your taste runs to high-fiber grains and legumes, fresh vegetables, hearty stews and homemade soups, a pressure cooker is essential, no matter how timid you are.

"I still don't understand the principle of it," says Cook. "It's like religion. I just have faith. I know when I open the lid of this thing the food is going to be cooked. And my pressure cooker has never let me down yet. What more could you ask?"

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