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Updated 28 minutes ago

I was always a little scared of pressure cookers.

Not just because, in the early days, they would occasionally explode. And not because I don't understand the science behind how they work. I do understand the science. I just didn't trust it.

But I'd heard the stories, not only about how a pressure cooker can trim up to two-thirds of your cooking time but also how it makes meat more tender and infuses the food with flavors that otherwise escape the pot.

So I brought out the pressure cooker that I had received as a gift years ago but had never used. The first night I tried it I made coq au vin, the slow-braised French classic. By using the pressure cooker, I managed to cut perhaps an hour out of my cooking time.

Unfortunately, it also cut out all of the dish's complexity. The meal was flat and uninspired.

But I pressed on. And I was glad I did.

I'll start with the best dish first: Lamb Curry With Lentils. This recipe caught my eye because, for all the many uses for pressure cookers, two stand out as the best: Indian food (reportedly, you would be hard pressed to find a household in India that does not have a pressure cooker) and beans.

Lamb Curry with Lentils seemed like an obvious choice because it combined the two in one dish.

Make that one spectacular dish. Unlike the coq au vin, this one is marvelously complex, a bright miasma of flavors swirling across your tongue. Despite its many spices (cumin, cloves, cardamom, curry powder, ginger), its aromatics (onions, garlic) and its combination of liquids (coconut milk, beef stock, lemon juice), it is perfectly balanced.

It does contain 18 ingredients, which admittedly looks daunting. But they are easy to assemble; the only hard part is chopping an onion.

Very nearly as good are what are called Chinese Red-Cooked Chicken Thighs. I don't know whether this is an actual Chinese dish, but it certainly tastes like one. And my, is it wonderful.

Using a principle common in Chinese cooking, it features flavors that are a little sweet (from sugar, sherry and the juice of an orange), salty (soy sauce) and spicy (red pepper flakes, cloves).

It's quick to make, and eating it is bliss. The best part comes even before you start to cook with pressure. First, you simmer sherry, soy sauce, orange juice, orange peel, cinnamon, ginger, fennel seeds and more. It may be the best your kitchen will ever smell. Served over rice, the completed dish tastes just as good as it smells. Maybe better.

Pasta e Fagioli is one of my favorite New Jersey meals (technically it is Italian, but really ­— New Jersey). You just can't beat a bowl of simmered beans, pasta, tomatoes and a little spice.

Easy Pasta e Fagioli, made in a pressure cooker, considerably quickens the cooking time while sacrificing little of the flavor.

The best part is that, unlike the other recipes that require more steps, you just throw everything together in a pot and cook it. Once the pot gets to full pressure, it just takes 5 minutes.

Finally, I made 8-Minute Chili which, to be honest, takes somewhat longer than eight minutes to make. But all that additional time is in prep work: browning the beef, chopping the onion and mild pepper, measuring out the spices. Once you get the pot to full pressure, it does indeed require just eight minutes to cook.

That's amazing for chili, which usually depends on the many flavors slowly blending together to create a hearty bowl.

Lamb Curry with Lentils

Yield: 6 servings

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, fat removed, cut into 2-inch pieces

1 cup chopped onions

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 teaspoons minced ginger root

2 teaspoons curry powder

1 teaspoon salt

1⁄4 teaspoon ground cumin

1⁄4 teaspoon ground cloves

1⁄4 teaspoon ground cardamom

1⁄4 teaspoon black pepper

1⁄2 cup diced tomatoes

1⁄4 cup dried red lentils

1 cup unsweetened coconut milk

1⁄2 cup beef stock

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1⁄4 cup chopped cilantro or parsley

4 cups hot cooked basmati rice

1. In a pressure cooker, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add lamb in batches and cook until browned. Transfer to a bowl. set aside.

2. Reduce heat to medium. Add onion, garlic, ginger, curry powder, salt, cumin, cloves, cardamom and pepper; sauté 2 minutes or until fragrant. Add tomatoes; cook for 1 minute. Stir in lentils, coconut milk, beef stock, lemon juice and lamb with any accumulated juices.

3. Lock lid into place and bring cooker up to full pressure over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low (if using an electric stove, move pot to a different element set to medium low), just to maintain even pressure, and cook 15 minutes. Remove from heat and turn off electric cooker or run stove-top cooker under cold water to quickly release pressure. Stir in cilantro. Serve over rice.

Per serving: 446 calories; 20 g fat; 12 g saturated fat; 65 mg cholesterol; 25 g protein; 40 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 693 mg sodium; 50 mg calcium

Chinese Red-Cooked Chicken Thighs

Yield: 4 servings

1⁄4 cup sherry

1⁄4 cup soy sauce

Rind of 1 orange, cut into strips

Juice of 1 orange

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 (2-inch) piece ginger, peeled and cut into 1⁄4-inch slices

2 (3-inch) cinnamon sticks

1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed

1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1⁄4 teaspoon ground cloves

8 skinless chicken thighs

1⁄2 cup water

1. Combine the sherry, soy sauce, orange rind, orange juice, sugar, ginger, cinnamon sticks, fennel seeds, red pepper flakes and cloves in the pressure cooker and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 10 minutes. Add the chicken thighs and water, stirring to mix.

2. Lock the lid in place. Bring to full pressure (15 pounds per square inch) over high heat; immediately reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting to stabilize and maintain that pressure (if using an electric stove, move pot to another element set on medium-low). Cook for 6 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow the pot to depressurize itself; this may take 15 minutes or more. Discard the cinnamon sticks and orange rind. Serve over rice.

Per serving: 341 calories; 14 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 224 mg cholesterol; 41 g protein; 10 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 1,025 mg sodium; 46 mg calcium

Adapted from “Miss Vickie's Big Book of Pressure Cooker Recipes,” by Vickie Smith

Easy Pasta E Fagoli

Yield: 6 servings

1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes, cut into chunks, with their juice

1 (15-ounce) can small red beans, drained and rinsed

1 medium green bell pepper, stemmed, cored and chopped

1 small yellow onion, chopped

1 cup whole wheat ziti

1⁄2 teaspoon dried rosemary

1⁄2 teaspoon dried thyme

1⁄4 teaspoon nutmeg

1⁄4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1⁄4 teaspoon salt

1. Mix everything in a 6-quart pressure cooker. Lock the lid onto the pot. Set the pot over high heat and bring it to high pressure (15 pounds per square inch). Immediately reduce the heat as low as possible while maintaining this pressure (if using an electric stove, move the pot to a different element on medium-low heat). Cook for 5 minutes. Or if using an electric pressure cooker, set the cooker to high pressure (9 to 11 pounds per square inch) and cook at high pressure for 8 minutes.

2. Run cold water over a stove-top cooker to quickly release the pressure or turn an electric cooker off. Stir the soup before serving.

Per serving: 151 calories; 1 g fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; 7 g protein; 31 g carbohydrate; 6 g sugar; 8 g fiber; 364 mg sodium; 95 mg calcium

Adapted from “The Great Big Pressure Cooker Book,” by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough

8-Minute Chili

Yield: 6 servings

1 pound lean ground beef

1 onion, chopped

2 (14-ounce) cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

3 ounces tomato paste

1 mild Mexican chile, such as Anaheim, poblano or pasilla, seeded and chopped

2 tablespoons chili powder

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 1⁄2 cups water, divided

2 tablespoons masa harina or all-purpose flour

1. Heat the pressure cooker over medium-high heat. Add the meat and cook until it is browned and well crumbled (don't worry if some sticks to the bottom). Add the onions and cook, stirring, until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the kidney beans, tomatoes, tomato paste, chile, chili powder, garlic, cumin, red pepper flakes and 2 cups of the water, mixing well. Lock the lid in place.

2. Bring to full pressure (15 pounds per square inch) over high heat. Immediately reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting to stabilize and maintain that pressure (if using an electric stove, move the pot to a different element set on medium-low). Cook for 8 minutes. Remove from heat and allow the pot to depressurize by itself; this may take 15 minutes or longer.

3. To thicken, make a slurry from the masa harina mixed with the remaining 1⁄2 cup water. Stir the slurry into the chili, simmering gently over medium heat, as it thickens to the desired consistency.

Per serving: 268 calories; 5 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 44 mg cholesterol; 25 g protein; 34 g carbohydrate; 9 g sugar; 12 g fiber; 435 mg sodium; 114 mg calcium

Adapted from “Miss Vickie's Big Book of Pressure Cooker Recipes,” by Vickie Smith

Daniel Neman is a St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer.

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