When you find your city being overrun by Giant White Rabbits, the only logical thing to do is to set the table and grab your Grandma’s pressure cooker. WHAT?
In America, we strive for more speed; fast food, fast bandwidth, faster cars, heck, even speed dating! Americans fell in love with the “electric oven”, as it was initially called in the 60s, and turned their back on the old-timey pressure cookers, that were sometimes prone to exploding and embraced microwaves. There’s nothing like the exploding pressure cooker cleanup. Ceilings and kitchens splatter finished with black beans and rice might look cool if you’re Jackson Pollock, but for the rest of Americans, when the microwave became commercially available, they ditched the pressure cooker. Not in Cuba!
That’s right. The popularity of the pressure cooker as the go-to Cuban method for preparing everything from frijoles negros, tamales, langosta and yes, Fricassé de Conejo, is another blast from the past and a reminder of the similarities that Cuba and Americans shared in the kitchen, and how Cuba has continued to preserve them.
For those of you old enough to remember the 1940s, you will recall that during those times, pressure cookers became quite popular as a means to cook more efficiently and conserve fuel for the War effort. My grandmother brought hers over from Germany and would cook a Beef Goulash to die for in the bizarre stainless steel contraption that whistled and screamed as the contents were prepared to perfection, lickety-split. It fascinated me as a tot to see its workings. Behold! The power of steam harnessed to raise the temperature faster, through the wonders of gaskets and release valves. I just thought it was a giant tea kettle that made food, instead of tea. Everyone insisted that I NEVER OPEN the pressure cooker during the process; pretty hard to do that when you’re a 3 foot tall midget, but I suppose I wanted to open it anyhow, hence, the calamitous warnings.
Pressure cookers have been around since the 17th century, since the French (it’s food, of course) physicist, Denis Papin invented a steam digester as an attempt to reduce the cooking time of food. Ever the efficiency expert, Denis was in a rush to get back to the lab and forge ahead with his experiments with steam, when he discovered that besides being able to clean up those hacksaws and scapels quicker, his steam digester also whipped up a beef and potato roast in a matter of minutes! Eureka! Denis would gain quick entry to the Royal Society of London thanks to his pot roast and burgundy powered presentations, and paved the way for the use of his device as an autoclave in the field of medicine.
The pressure cooker has been a favorite in the kitchens of Cuban women long before it made it to America. Spain gave patent # 71143 to Jose Alix Martínez from Zaragoza, in 1919. The olla exprés, or “express cooking pot”, was created by him and quickly became popular throughout Spain and its former colonies. 5 years later, Jose Alix had whipped up 360 tasty recipes to prepare in his mini steam engine, and published the book entitled, “360 recipes for cooking with a pressure cooker“. Not necessarily the most original title, but it caught on like wildfire in Cuba, where the ladies were recovering from the first category 5 hurricane that had destroyed most of Pinar del Rio. There was no time for dilly dallying, it was time to rebuild! Who has time to waste over an oven all day?
The pressure cooker has saved thousands of hours in the Cuban kitchen and has not been replaced, despite the introduction of microwaves as recently as the past 5 years. Cubans love the unique ability of the pressure cooker to cook the foods with a minimal amount of water (so fewer nutrients are lost), in a very short time – imagine cooking an entire chicken in 20 minutes. The sabor of the meats and vegetables is amplified during the process and the length of time necessary to prepare meals is halved. To say it plainly, folks, food just tastes better in a pressure cooker. The olla de presión, as it is now known in Cuba, is ubiquitous; no kitchen is without one. For these reasons, the Cuban Microwave, as we have deemed it, reigns king throughout the land.
In Cuba, one of our favorite traditional meals is Fricassé de Conejo; and the best way to prepare it is in the Cuban Microwave. Enjoy the authentic Cuban recipe below, and if you can’t stand the idea of eating Bugs Bunny, you can substitute calabaza ( Cuban pumpkin ) and onions, with mojo, for a equally righteous, and PETA friendly, outcome.
Fricassé de Conejo prepared in the Cuban Microwave
1 (3 pound) rabbit, cleaned and cut into pieces
2 1/2 cups water
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped – more if you love garlic
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1/4 teaspoon saffron powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon black pepper + 1 teaspoon of black peppercorns
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 bay leaf
1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce
1 pound potatoes, peeled and quartered
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup capers, drained
1 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped green olives or a handful of green pitted ones
1/4 cup olive oil
1 (10 ounce) can baby peas, drained
Salt and pepper the rabbit, add oil to cooker, sear. Place the rabbit pieces in the pressure cooker over medium heat along with the onion, garlic, and green pepper, with the top off. Sear for about 15 minutes until brown. Season with saffron, cumin, lemon juice and the bay leaf. Pour the water over all. Place top on pressure cooker and seal. Bring to a boil, cooker will begin to whistle, then reduce temperature. Turn off gas, let cool, release pressure with a fork on the release valve. When completely cool, open the lid, Add the potatoes, and cook for about 20 more minutes, until tender. Cut the flame, Repeat the step above for reducing the pressure. Add the raisins, capers, white wine, tomato sauce, olives and olive oil. Simmer for about 5 more minutes. Finally, stir in the peas and remove from the heat.
That’s All Folks! Disfruta el sabor de Cuba!