SHORT of unplugging the refrigerator and disconnecting the hot-water heater there isn't much you can do to greatly reduce kilowatt consumption in the kitchen. Sad to say, the energy-efficient cooking appliances many cooks so carefully select make only minimal difference in overall power usage.
But there is another important source of energy that should be considered--the cook's. Appliances that help save planning and cleanup time can make a big difference in the energy output of the cook, and these are the savings that really count.
While the toaster oven and the electric skillet are generally well accepted, there are misconceptions about their energy-saving cousins--microwave ovens, pressure cookers and crockery cookers.
Cooks lobby for microwave purchases and use them for nothing but reheating leftovers. Crockery cookers often are relegated to bean soup and beef stew. And pressure cookers evoke little more than a shudder from those who think about using them--everyone has a tale about Aunt Sally and where she was finding beef stew six months after the explosion.
Approach these implements with realistic expectations. Each one does certain chores very well and others very poorly. The biggest mistake, if you are new to any of them, is overambition. People who know microwave ovens, for instance, will tell you they can do anything but fry. But to say that they bake well ignores the very nature of the oven, which gyrates water molecules to produce friction which translates into heat. There is no such thing as dry heat in a microwave without added features.
So baking is not the best use of the microwave's abilities. While a cook accustomed to the oven's idiosyncrasies and delighted with the time it saves might be thrilled with a microwaved layer cake, a novice will have his worst fears confirmed and go back to reheating coffee.
Used for its strengths, each of these tools can save a lot of personal and pecuniary energy. CROCKERY COOKERS
"Crockery Cookery," has sold more than any other trade paperback, according to Michael Taylor, marketing researcher for HPBooks. This could be because people love their Crock-Pots, and it could be because people haven't the foggiest idea what to do with them.
Some cooks have already learned to put their dutch ovens on top of the stove rather than in their ovens because the more concentrated heat source saves energy. A crockery cooker requires less energy to operate than either a burner or an oven (for equivalent time). How much less depends on the model of cooker--the types with removable crocks use a little more than those that don't; the more chores performed by the cooker (such as fryer/slow cooker combinations), the less efficiently they perform. Those with heat surrounding the food cook more evenly than those with heat emanating from the bottom.
The most successful recipes in a crockery cooker are those that require long, slow simmering. Virtually any recipe that calls for a covered dutch oven (or heavy pot) and low oven heat can be adapted for the crockery cooker. To use the appliance to best advantage, concentrate on its strengths:
* Stews and soups are obvious choices, and the ones to which most people turn. These foods benefit from melding flavors allowed by slow cooking, which also tenderizes tough meats and enriches broth.
* Tough meats that adapt well to strong flavors are prime candidates for slow cooking. This is fortuitous, since they are usually the cheapest choices, saving more than electricity. Turkey thighs, beef brisket, chuck roast and beef round, lamb shoulder, necks and shanks all do well when cooked a long time with lots of garlic or a little wine. The cook doesn't have to think too long to combine the meat with some tomatoes, for instance, a whole bulb of garlic (don't bother to peel) and a handful of rinsed parsley. He can worry about fishing out the seasonings later (see lamb shank recipe below).
* Sauces and stocks are slow-cooking bonuses. Almost anything that needs reducing or concentrating does well in the crockery cooker that heats from all sides (as opposed to ones that heat only from the bottom). Tomato sauces, fruit butters and meat stocks all reduce overnight with little chance of scorching and no requirement for stirring or watching.
* Steamed foods, such as puddings and breads, often strain the conscience because they cook for such a long time. The crockery cooker is the perfect place for such foods as brown bread, Indian pudding and spicy fruit puddings.
* Beans: The slow-cooker is the best way to cook beans. Cover them with water, throw in a ham hock and salt and pepper and come home to soup. Or go the extra step to brown onions and garlic, add bay leaf, oregano, basil and chopped vegetables and come home to minestrone. Molasses, mustard, onion make them Boston-style.
Many foods don't do well in the crockery cooker. Chicken, for example, overcooks if you leave it all day to stew, as will any small pieces of meat and tender or finely chopped vegetables. Frozen chicken pieces circumvent this problem, however.
Some foods tend to get watery, especially if the recipe calls for added liquid. Elizabeth Ellis, a equipment specialist for the Arkansas State Extension Service for 24 years, says natural moisture in foods is usually sufficient for slow cooking. Drain canned tomatoes and keep other liquids to a minimum, or reduce the sauce over high flame on the range.
Foods don't get crusty brown in a crockery cooker, resulting in some flavor loss.
Crockery cookers require planning, a drawback for some. Dinner may not be a primary consideration for those who find the Mr. Coffee difficult to handle at 6 a.m. Anne Prince, home economics agent for Fairfax County, solves that problem by combining everything in the slow cooker the night before and putting the entire thing in the refrigerator. In the morning, she plugs it in and returns at night to refry her frijoles. PRESSURE COOKERS
Pressure cookers are the Renaissance appliance. They do just about everything and they do it fast.
But pressure strikes fear into the minds of even adventurous cooks, who find the dutch oven a little less threatening. Yet this method of cooking takes the strengths of the crockery cooker one step further--no prior planning is necessary. You can arrive groceries in hand and lickety-split, you've got pot roast or pinto beans in a fraction of conventional cooking time.
This implement turns heat from the burner into pressure power--increased efficiency requires less electrical energy. As pressure rises, so does the boiling point of water, resulting in quicker cooking. This is the beauty of pressure cooking; you can brown your short ribs in the same pot in which you braise them under pressure, then within a mere 30 minutes remove the top and reduce the sauce. At the end of the meal there is only that one pot to wash, which saves the cook's energy. And short cooking times preserve many of the vitamins destroyed with longer heating.
Successful handling depends on two things. First, one must understand the pressure gauge, which jiggles as it releases steam (and thus regulates the pressure). Different cookers make different noises at different times, but they all do so with regularity. Once you learn what yours sounds like, you can set a timer and go about your business--within earshot.
But babysitting the gauge shouldn't be a problem, because food cooks so quickly you don't have to hover for hours. While you prepare the rest of the meal, the gauge jiggles close by.
Instructions are imperative, unfortunately, and casual cooks may not like to be tied to them. Cautions such as "don't fill the pressure cooker too full" do nothing to enhance the pressure cooker's popularity. But these tips are not restrictive and help the cook avoid unnecessary catastrophe.
Almost anything a crockery cooker does, a pressure cooker does faster. Tough meats, beans, stews, stocks, soups and sauces are all at home under pressure. Drawbacks: The pressure cooker doesn't reduce particularly well and shortened cooking time doesn't allow flavors to meld. MICROWAVE OVENS
A new father once described his microwave as the "world's most expensive bottle warmer." It's not bad with bacon, either.
Turn a few microwaves loose on vegetables, however, and you'll begin to understand the greatest strength of this appliance. A whole cauliflower, wrapped in plastic, cooks to perfection in five minutes. Now that's easy. If it never saved one kilowatt of power, the cook saves so much effort preparing vegetables that bacon could be relegated to stovetop with no loss of microwave productivity.
But the microwave is an energy-efficient method of cooking. "The thing about a microwave," says Dr. Peter Snyder, associate professor and extension specialist at the University of Minnesota, "is that it's on, and it's off. That's where the microwave wins" the energy game. It also runs on less power than both burners and ovens.
Microwave energy scares some people; an unfounded fear, according to Snyder. First, he says, leakage has never been a problem. Second, the microwaves going into food produce only heat. "All they do is vibrate," says Snyder, they don't rearrange atoms the way X-rays do.
Its strengths are numerous.
* Leftovers: It's become a joke among microwave specialists, since many microwave owners don't ever graduate from the reheating stage. But it's true. "If you want to reheat anything that has moisture in it, you can't beat the microwave," says Snyder.
* Gravies and some sauces: One stir and a turn and you're done, says Snyder. "They are goof-proof in a microwave."
Fish is sublime when prepared in the microwave oven. It's fast and it's easily cooked to perfection. New oven owners report less trepidation about cooking fish in a microwave than by conventional means. Perhaps since the microwave oven requires a whole new mind frame, cooks feel less compelled to rely on standard family recipes.
* Rendering fat: Microwaves draw out fat efficiently, which makes them useful for bacon and duck.
* Fruits: "The microwave is pretty much a poaching device," says Snyder. Prick some pears, wrap them in waxed paper and zap them for a few minutes.
* Low-calorie foods: Many recipes that require fat when cooked on top of the stove don't in the microwave, and fat is the most concentrated source of calories.
* Vegetables: "You just about can't scorch vegetables in a microwave ," says Snyder, "and you sure can on top of the stove. The oven is pretty much idiot-proof."
* Small portions: The microwave is perfect for couples, says Snyder, but there's very little reason to attempt dinner for five. Between the stirring and the turning and the timing, very little power or energy is saved.
* Chores: The microwave does many small jobs that contribute to the grand picture. Melting chocolate, for instance, can be risky on the range because it scorches easily. The microwave melts it quickly with less chance of burning. It softens butter and browns onions without stirring, cooks a roux unwatched. And a few seconds in the microwave makes liquor perfect for flambe'.
* Liquids: Energy specialists say that the more liquid the substance, the less energy you'll save by cooking it in the microwave. But there's something to be said about one-dish service, whether you're heating tomato soup in a mug or punch in a pitcher. The time, effort and money you'll save in cleanup makes it well worth it.
* Pot roasts and stews: The microwave "is really not a good device if you want to tenderize food," says Snyder. To properly soften the tough connective tissue, you would save very little time over conventional cooking. Better to put the meat in a heavy saucepan over low heat on top of the stove.
* Roasted meats such as chicken and tender beef: First, the inside of the microwave oven does not get as dry as a conventional oven, so meat won't get crispy or even as dry as we're accustomed to. Small pieces of meat cook so quickly they don't brown well. Microwave cookbooks will suggest cosmetics for pale chicken breasts but browning is a flavor as much as a color and one that Americans prefer.
Many people say chicken is one food they really don't like in the microwave. There's a reason for this, says Snyder. When we smell food cooking, the aroma in the air is flavor no longer in the food. Microwave ovens cook so quickly that foods retain a lot of the flavors that are lost with prolonged heating. When microwaving chicken, "you haven't driven off some of those barnyard flavors," says Snyder, and these taste may not appeal to most people.
* Pork: Officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture aren't thrilled at the thought of microwaving pork. They've conducted tests that reveal cold spots in pork too cool to kill trichina organisms. USDA spokesman John McClung says that trichina in pork is not common, but the department doesn't recommend cooking fresh pork in the microwave oven unless the cook is "assured it will cook evenly."
* Baking: "Baking is done in a dry box the hot oven and a microwave is not a dry box," says Snyder. Microwaves don't dry sufficiently. You can't tell when cakes are done, because they need standing time and you don't know until the end of the standing time whether the cake has set or not. In addition, the cake cooks unevenly. "It's not a good baker," Snyder says of the microwave.
* Hot spots: Snyder says that microwave makers still haven't perfected machines that cook evenly.
Here are some energy-saving recipes. CURRIED BEEF UNDER PRESSURE (4 servings) 1/4 cup vegetable oil or clarified butter 1 large onion, sliced 2 garlic cloves, minced 2 green chilies, seeded and minced 1 pound beef chuck, cut into 1-inch pieces 1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard 1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper 1 teaspoon turmeric 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger 1/2 cup water or red wine
Heat vegetable oil in a pressure cooker. Add onion, garlic and chilies and cook 3 or 4 minutes over medium heat. Add remaining ingredients. Cover and cook under 15 pounds pressure for 15 minutes after the pressure gauge begins to rattle.
Remove from heat and run cold water over the lid to reduce pressure. Gently tip pressure gauge to let out any remaining steam. When the hissing stops, remove top. Serve beef over rice, if desired. CHINESE SPARERIBS UNDER PRESSURE (4 to 6 servings) 2 tablespoons oil 3 to 4 pounds country-style spareribs 1/4 cup soy sauce 1/4 cup orange marmalade 2 tablespoons tomato sauce 1 clove garlic, crushed
Lightly coat the bottom of the pressure cooker with vegetable oil. Over medium heat, brown spare ribs. Add remaining ingredients and cover. Cook under 10 pounds pressure for 20 minutes after pressure gauge begins to rattle (or follow instructions for your pressure cooker). GREENS BLACK BEAN CHILE (6 to 8 servings)
Greens is a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco and run by the Zen Center. It serves $18 5-course dinners on Friday and Saturday nights. Right now, they're accepting reservations for July.
The restaurant serves lunch daily and takes reservations only a week in advance. There are even some seats available for the spontaneous visit, though not at peak lunch hours.
For those of us who never make it to San Francisco, however, the Greens people are compiling a cookbook, in which this delicious black bean chili recipe will be included. You'll find that this chili is worth a special trip to a Latin grocery for the peppers. 1 pound black beans 1 medium yellow onion, chopped 4 cloves garlic, minced 1 bell pepper, diced 2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil 1 tablespoon whole cumin 1 tablespoon oregano 1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper 2 teaspoons paprika 1 small pasilla chili* 1 small chipotle chili (roasted, smoked jalapen o)* 4 ripe (or canned) tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped 1 bay leaf 6 to 8 ounces muenster cheese, grated Fresh cilantro, optional Sour cream
Sort through black beans to check for (and discard) any small stones. In uncovered pressure cooker, fry onion, garlic and bell pepper in vegetable oil until onion is soft. In a dry skillet, roast whole cumin until it begins to smoke and gives off a nice aroma. Pound in mortar and pestle or grind in spice mill. Repeat with oregano, being careful not to burn the leaves. Remove onions from flame and add cumin, oregano, red pepper and paprika. Stem and seed pasilla chili and grind to powder in mortar or spice grinder. Add to onions. Chop chipotle pepper and add to onion. Combine all ingredients except cheese, cilantro and sour cream in pressure cooker and cook under 15 pounds pressure for 15 minutes, or until beans are tender. Divide cheese among serving bowls and top with chili. Serve garnished with chopped cilantro (if desired) and sour cream.
*These chilies are available in some Mexican groceries in the Washington area. FILLET OF FLOUNDER MICROWAVED (4 servings) 2 pounds flounder fillet (or substitute bass, trout or perch), in 4 serving pieces 1/4 cup butter 1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce 1/4 cup chopped scallions (including tops) 2 teaspoons lemon juice 1 garlic clove, minced 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
Dry fish with paper towels. Place in glass baking dish. Combine remaining ingredients in 2-cup measure. Cook at maximum power for 1 minute. Pour over fish. Cover with waxed paper. Cook at maximum power for 5 to 6 minutes, turning dish midway through cooking. Garnish with parsley and lemon, if desired. LO-CAL MICROWAVED MEAT AND POTATOES (4 servings) 4 medium baking potatoes 1/2 pound lean ground beef 1 medium onion, sliced and separated into rings 8 ounces sliced fresh mushrooms 1 clove garlic, minced 1/4 cup skim milk 1/4 cup tomato juice 2 tablespoons white wine 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard Freshly ground black pepper Chopped parsley
Pierce potatoes several times with a fork. Arrange in spoke fashion in microwave and cook at maximum power for 12 to 15 minutes, rearranging once during cooking. Remove and set aside.
Place meat, onions and mushrooms in casserole. Cover loosely with waxed paper and cook for 3 minutes at maximum power. Stir and repeat. Drain. Combine remaining ingredients except parsley. Stir into meat and microwave on maximum power for 4 1/2 to 6 minutes, or until thickened, stirring twice during cooking. Halve each potato, fluff potatoes with a fork and divide meat mixture among them. Heat about 30 seconds and serve, garnished with parsley. (Each serving contains about 225 calories). SLOW COOKER BROWN BREAD (1 loaf) 1/2 cup sifted flour 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour 6 tablespoons dark molasses 2 cups buttermilk, sour milk or yogurt thinned with a little water or milk 1/2 to 1 cup raisins
Sift flour with baking powder, soda and salt. Add remaining ingredients and beat well. Pour into greased and floured 2-pound coffee can. Pour 2 cups water into crockery cooker and set can in water. Place aluminum foil over top and fold down around edge of cooker. Cover and bake on low heat about 6 hours. Remove and allow to cool 1 hour before unmolding. Serve with cream cheese as an accompaniment to baked beans. SLOW COOKED LAMB SHANKS (4 servings) 1 whole head of garlic 4 lamb shanks, split in half by the butcher 13 1/2 ounces canned stewed tomatoes 1 teaspoon thyme Salt and pepper Strip of orange 2 stems of parsley 2/3 cup red wine
Split garlic into cloves but don't peel. Put 2 lamb shanks into crockery cooker, top with half the garlic and half the tomatoes. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon thyme. Add salt and pepper, orange peel and parsley. Top this with remaining lamb shanks, garlic, tomatoes and thyme. Pour wine over all. Cover and cook on low for 6 to 9 hours. At 9 hours it should be falling off the bone. Remove lamb shanks and set aside. Pour liquid through a sieve and into saucepan, pressing to remove as much of the liquid as possible. Discard solids. Degrease the liquid. Boil over high heat until reduced and thickened. The sauce won't be as thick as gravy but it should thicken somewhat. Serve with noodles.