Chana dahl with spinach: feeling the pressure

Damn you, pressure cooker! What is wrong with you? Or is it me?

People rave about their pressure cookers and how they can’t live without them, which is why I accepted the invitation to review one recently.* I was curious and terrified. All that hissing and steaming and well, pressure. Scary. A few days passed and it sat unused on the hob. Eventually, rather than just looking at the damn thing, I plucked up the courage to try using it. The idea of the PC is to produce the results of slow cooking in a fraction of the time. The first dish that sprang to my mind was curry goat.

The meat usually takes a lot of long, slow simmering to tenderise and I wondered how much the PC could shave off the cooking time. After 45 minutes I had a peek inside. The meat was tender – falling apart, but there was way too much liquid. This really threw me, because I’d worked out quantities according to the advice in the instruction booklet, resisting the temptation to add more due to multiple warnings that one must NOT LET THE PRESSURE COOKER BOIL DRY. I then had to reduce the sauce for another 45 minutes without the lid on, which defeated the whole point. A very disheartening first attempt.

Next I decided to try cooking a big hunk of meat in there. A joint of lamb marinated in pomegranate molasses went in, with some liquid. It cooked well, and fast. It was falling apart after cooking for a shade past an hour but I missed the crusty outer bits I’d get from a roast. The recipe is a keeper (coming soon) but the method, nah.

By this point the PR are wondering when the hell they are going to get their review. I didn’t want to say I couldn’t work it out before I’d given the thing a proper go though so it was time to move on to something else: dahl. All the Indian cooks I know told me that the PC revolutionises your relationship with lentils. “Cook a dahl in 15 minutes! You’ll never look back!” Okay. I started off frying the onions in the base of the PC just as you would a normal saucepan then added garlic, chilli and ginger, the spices, tomatoes and an alarmingly small amount of stock. After checking guideline amounts about 10 times I bit the bullet and got on with it; 15 minutes later and we were oohing and ahhing around the hob – perfectly tender chana dahl. At last, the sweet taste of success. I could now cook 1 thing in a pressure cooker.

Or so I thought. Today I made the exact same recipe. I added the same amount of liquid, the same quantities of everything and cooked it for the same amount of time. When I opened the lid however, the chana remained uncooked. People, I am baffled.

I don’t want to give up because I can see the value but frustration is really setting in. I’m a competent cook for Pete’s sake. Strange forces are at work here. The PR are probably going to wish they’d never got their review now, but it’s not like I don’t want to love it, I do. A decent dahl in 15 minutes really is something I could get used to and I want to try cooking chickpeas in it, and stews. Seriously though, I need advice. What am I doing wrong?  How can the exact same recipe cook differently on 2 separate occasions? Readers, it’s over to you.

Chana dahl with spinach (this is the recipe which worked the first time and took ten minutes longer to cook the second time around. However long it takes, it is delicious).

300g chana dahl
500ml stock or water
2 medium onions, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 inch piece ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 green chillies, finely sliced
2 large tomatoes, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
10 curry leaves
4 green cardamom pods
1 black cardamom pod
1 dried red chilli
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon garam masala

1 large bunch of spinach (a few large handfuls)

Groundnut oil, for frying

Lemon wedges and chapattis, to serve. I also like mine with natural yoghurt and red onion slices

Start by using the pressure cooker like a normal saucepan. Set it over a medium heat, lid off. Heat a few tablespoons of groundnut oil then fry the onions, stirring often until softened and beginning to colour. Add the garlic, chilli and ginger and cook for a minute more, stirring constantly. Add all the spices and curry leaves and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add the tomatoes and lentils, stir to combine, then add the stock and some salt. Turn off the heat.

Fit the lid onto the pressure cooker and ensure it is secure. Make sure the pressure regulator is turned to the (I) position. Turn on the heat and after a few minutes the visual pressure indicator should rise, followed by a gentle hiss sound, meaning that the required pressure level has been reached.

Reduce the heat by approximately a third. The steam should be gently hissing and the pressure indicator should remain up. Start timing now and cook for 15 minutes.

After this time, turn off the heat and move the pressure regulator gently to the steam release position.

Remove the lid and stir in the spinach until wilted. Adjust the seasoning if necessary and serve.

*The Prestige ‘This Morning’ range is available at Debenhams (yes, ‘This Morning’ the daytime TV show). RRP: £80. I was sent the pressure cooker for review and did not pay for it.

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18 thoughts on “Chana dahl with spinach: feeling the pressure

  1. Hi Helen,

    I don’t know whether you have abandoned your pressure cooker by now but after much trial and constant rechecking of guidelines I have finally learned not to worry about how watery the stew is at the end of cooking time. I generally use the pressure cooker to make indian curries a la Madhur Jaffrey and I usually like those curries to sit for 24 hours before I eat them so after years of reducing the water at end of cooking time I now just put all the watery stew into container, refrigerate once cooled and the next night it is miraculously not watery and you don’t have to add water when heating up.

    I also learnt to put my pressure cooker on the outside doorstep to let off its steam so I didn’t have to clean the kitchen walls.

    The hard thing about pressure cookers is that there aren’t the number of recipes around to help you work out cooking times and volume of water without all the rechecking and guess work, so it was interesting to read about Richard Erlich and Lorna Sass’s books.

  2. Fiona – Thanks!

    Shayma – Thanks very much for the offer of advice. I definitely used the exact same amount of stock, which is why I am so confused but I will keep on trying!

    Niamh – Everything?! Blimey. I can’t imagine how bad over-cooked vegetables from a pressure cooker can be.

    Krista – Surely you are not tempted to cook?

    jenn -Thanks

    Catherine – Yeah, definitely sure i had the right pressure as I obsessively checked! Do you think it’s faulty? That’s an amazing tip about the beef cheeks and goes against everything it says in the instruction book. I’m going to give that a go as soon as poss.

    Dave – quite

    Gastrogeek – Thanks. Still terrifies me.

    Jonathan – Oh now I need a slow cooker don’t I. NEED MORE ROOM.

    Sarah _ yes! yes I did use different chana dahl. Perhaps that is it. Thank you :)

    Mary – oops! Left it out. Will amend it now, thanks. Also , you will need more liquid if you are doing on the hob.

    Sharmila – tell me tell me tell me tell me
    Greedy Diva – Scary, innit.

    Lizzie – BOOM! Yes I will be expecting you to come to my rescue.

    Andrew – Thanks for the tips. I read a lot of warnings about always thickening after the pressure has been released NEVER BEFORE.

  3. Ah, the scary pressure cooker. Took me weeks to get up the guts to use it when my mum bought me one. However, it’s really not that scary to use and now I cook dahl and pulses in it all the time. I have found that the instructions in my booklet always indicate using way too much liquid. I don’t know what those Swiss guys are cooking, but I like my dinner to be a little less waterlogged.

    (I probably won’t tell you the story about how my friends mum in India got the name Pressure Cooker Priya).

  4. Hi, this sounds yummy but will try on the hob as have no pressure cooker but (and this might appear a silly question) where does the spinach come into the recipe? Thanks in advance.

  5. The only thing I can think of is did you use different chana dal the second time around? If the pulses were older or heat treated they wouldn’t cook as well. When I lived in NZ I had to completely stop cooking with dried pulses when the Government decided to heat treat everything (to sterilise them for reasons of biosecurity) – fine, the country’s safe but now nothing will cook!

  6. Those things scare the bejesus out of me! My mum swore by hers for years, but they’ve never really done it for me. All that eery whistling…Nice recipe though, and that goat curry looks intensely good.

  7. Odd.

    First, with the dahl, are you absolutely sure you had it set to the right pressure? I remember when I first got my pressure cooker, my second attempt at beans (the first being spot on), failing miserably, and my ex husband, who had grown up with the things, realising I’d got it set wrongly. If it’s not a model that whistles, it should at least hiss when up to pressure, don’t just go on the visual indicator.

    As for the meat & too much liquid – you don’t need a lot. I did beef cheeks tonight in 20 minutes – they were incredibly tender and all I added was a glass of wine and some vegetables – enough liquid came out of the meat and vegetables to keep it going.

    I’ve been looking forward to Richard’s book, but if you can cope with Americans, Lorna Sass’s book is brilliant. Google Heston and pressure cookers too – I’ve been doing stock in mine since he recommended it, and I’ve yet to go back to the traditional way.

  8. When I cooked your curry goat recipe I decided to put it in a proper slow cooker, and cooked it for 6 hours.

    Pressure cookers are good for boiling veg. I use mine for bolognaise sauce but always use flour to thicken the sauce once the pressure has been released. If you want to boil a carcass to make a stock they’re pretty good as well.

  9. I find mine is very trial and error.

    I usually use it for pulses or for stock.

    You can reduce a stew a huge amount by bringing up to pressure and then releasing quickly (by an open window to get rid of the steam).

    I am far more in love with my slow cooker.

  10. One of my favourite childhood sounds was the sound of my mom’s pressure cooker on a Sunday afternoon. She made a lot of great things in that pressure cooker! You are prompting me to ask her if she still has it!

  11. Lol! Funny. An Indian friend in university cooked *everything* in her pressure cooker but I’ve never investigated myself. I have a fear having eaten wildly overcooked vegetables from them, many times in my childhood.

  12. gosh helen, i am baffled. i make chanay ki dahl in my pressure cooker- and it takes around 17 mins, but i have been making it here in Toronto for a year and a half now and i am used to my stove (in Rome where I had a gas stove it used to take 13 to the second!). the only thing i can think of is that you may have added more stock/water than last time. but you know what, dont worry- when i moved to Toronto i had to change all the timings again- so when i opened it after the 13 minute mark and it was still raw, i just locked it and put it back on the flame again! if you have any other questions, lemme know as my Aunt in London has been using a pressure cooker for 20+ years- and she’ll be able to answer some of your questions better than i can. i have only been using it for 7 years. regardless, love your chanay ki dahl with spinach and hope it turns out even better next time! x shayma

  13. I’ve never managed to make anything in a pressure cooker that didn’t work better without one but pressure cooker addicts swear by them. The person you should get in touch with is food writer Richard Ehrlich who has just written a whole book on the subject. If you email me I’ll send you his contact details. (Or find him on Linkedin if you’re on it)


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