Our pressure cooker crouches in the cabinet like a wild thing, display lights flashing even though it’s unplugged. It is enormous, takes up a quarter of the space inside. When it’s plugged in and buttons are pushed, it issues long lists of commands in Korean, in a ladies’ voice. When it’s done cooking it plays a sound effect, a locomotive or birds singing, depending on which button you’ve pushed. Then it sings a little song in Korean and releases the steam from the valve. The printed recipes that came with it are Korean, as are all many of the pre-set buttons. I thought of asking my mother-in-law to interpret the last time she visited, but I used up our time together by asking her to show me how to make kimchi, and dumplings. She was happy to oblige, knowing that a freezer full of dumplings would ensure that her eldest son wouldn’t starve to death. He is married to a cook, he is unlikely to starve to death, but she thought he was a skinny baby and, forty years later, she’s still trying to fatten him up. He will never be fat, he takes after her side of the family.
We asked Julia and Augustine to pick out a pressure cooker for us for Christmas one year, knowing that they could not be dissuaded from getting us something, and that they would take the job of finding the perfect one very seriously. Julia wanted to get us one like hers, but they don’t make them anymore. Augustine, like his son, is a researcher, but he’s more into field work than lab studies. Informal surveys are his specialty. “I remember this one horrible vacation we took when we were kids,” my husband says, “we went to some small town in Minnesota. There was nothing to do there. Some guy had told my dad it was really nice, that we should go there. So we did.”
Augustine takes everything people say to him at face value because he always says what he means. The guy from Minnesota may have been exaggerating, probably didn’t expect that the friendly Korean guy asking all the questions would pack his family into the car and head to Winona, singing along with Kenny Rodgers the entire way.
Thanks to my in-laws, I’m learning how to be honest. I don’t have much practice at it, my own family specializes more in denial and secret hurt feelings. But I’m learning. Augustine is Catholic, very pious. Three years ago he asked my husband and I to read a book about a priest, Padre Pio. I was vague, tried to be polite, “oh sure, yeah, I’ll read it.” I didn’t mean it. My husband winced, shook his head. Sucker. Later he took his dad aside and leveled with him. She’s not going to read the book, he said. Let it go. But it was too late, I said I would, and that was that. Last night I got an email from my sister-in-law. She’d been visiting the folks. “Augustine wants to know if you’ve read the Padre Pio book yet.” Looks like it’s time for a confession.
Although I don’t know what most of the buttons do, I am sure our pressure cooker is a good one. I am sure that four out of five Koreans in the Lake County church group agree it’s the best one. I know that it makes excellent brown rice, and that I can cook dried beans in it in forty-five minutes or an hour, no soaking required. One of my favorite things to make in it is black bean soup with pork. Sometimes I brown the meat, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I soak the beans, sometimes I just throw them in. It’s always good. It’s not a Korean dish, but I think my mother-in- law will approve. If not, I’m sure she will tell me.
Black Beans with Pork and Three Chilis
2 cups dried black beans
2 lb. pork shoulder or butt, fat trimmed and cut into 1 ½” pieces
1 tablespoon ancho chili powder
1 tablespoon olive oil, more as needed
1 onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
12-oz bottle beer
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon minced fresh Serrano chili (seeds removed)
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon chopped chipotle chili in adobo sauce
salt, to taste
Cover black beans in 6 cups water and soak overnight, or 6-8 hours. Drain soaking water. Reserve beans.
Sprinkle both sides of pork pieces with ancho chili powder. Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil and brown pork in batches, being careful not to overcrowd pan. As pork is browned, remove from pan and place in pressure cooker. When all the meat is seared, add onions to pan. Pour a little beer in the pan, and scrape pan with a wooden spoon. Cook until the onions begin to brown and the beer is mostly evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and chilis to pan. Continue to cook another five minutes. Add onions, garlic and chilis to pressure cooker. Add chipotle chili and cumin. Add soaked beans and the rest of the beer. Add water to cover, about 3 cups. Lock pressure cooker and cook, 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your cooker (I use an electric pressure cooker and cook for 1 hour.)
For a regular stock pot: sear pork and cook onions, etc. in a large, heavy pot (a Dutch oven is ideal.) Add a little more water, about 4 cups. After everything is added to the pot, bring to a simmer, turn the heat down as low as possible, and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until pork is falling apart and beans are tender, about 2 hours.
For a slow cooker: Follow the same steps as for the pressure cooker. Add a little more water, about 4 cups. Cook in high for 4 hours, then turn heat down to low to hold, up to two hours.
When pork is falling apart and beans are tender, add salt to taste. Serve soup hot with chopped avocado, tomatoes, cilantro or sour cream.
Note: You may omit browning the pork and aromatics, just add everything to the pot at once. The meat will be pale. If using a pressure cooker, you may also skip soaking the beans, though I do, if I remember, so that I can drain off the soaking liquid and hopefully reduce a little of the beans’ flatulence-producing enzymes.