As I’ve mentioned on several occasions, life aboard the Sea Shanti is bare bones. Our galley consists of a small folding table, a knife, an Instant Pot, and a tiny marine refrigerator. I wash dishes in a plastic tub, and since Jack dropped our treasured Second Spoon™ in the drink, we’re currently sharing a single spoon, which makes eating soup a real communal activity*.
In addition, our resources are limited. For one thing, there’s no room to keep cans we’ll never use. For another, nearly every penny we have goes into the Shanti, and there’s not much left to blow on high-falutin’ culinary accoutrements.
Needless to say, this sea witch has no cauldron nor even a hide-bound grimoire, but I’ve been making some magic with my Instant Pot and my composition book. I knew way back when that living on the boat was going to require me to learn a new approach to cooking – a more adaptable, intuitive approach, and as usual, I was right***.
With such a restrictive environment for cooking, I’ve had to do some studying and experimenting (two of my favorite past times, as it happens), and as I’ve studied and experimented, I’ve been making notes in my handy dandy daybook.
Recently, I discovered that every successful meal I’ve prepared aboard the Sea Shanti has followed a pretty basic formula. Using this witchy little formula I can cook pretty much any food from any culture with almost any ingredient in my magical Instant Pot.
Without further ado, here is my sea witch-approved Instant Pot formula that works even if you wash your dishes in a rubber tub.
Step 1: Oil
Turn your Instant Pot on sauté and coat the bottom of your Instant Pot with cooking oil.
I’m being intentionally vague. I’ve used red palm oil, lard, vegetable oil, sesame oil, and, of course, olive oil. Currently, I’ve limited myself to vegetable oil because it works well enough in any recipe.
Step 2: Powdered Spices
Add powdered spices (think: red pepper, ginger, turmeric, cumin, etc.) to the oil long enough to smell the joint up.
Step 3: Onions
Add chopped onions (and salt!!!!!!!!) and sauté long enough for them to soften and absorb all that oily, spicy goodness.
I can’t think of a recipe I’ve made yet that hasn’t involved adding onions as part of the flavor base. I guess if you don’t like onions, you can skip this step. But you should know you’re also dead to me.
This is a great place to add salt early because it helps to soften the onions and to bring out their flavor. If you’re cooking beans, adding salt at this stage shouldn’t interfere with their softening since most of the salt will be absorbed by the onions before you add the beans.
Step 4: Aromatics
Add any aromatic veggies (think: celery, carrots, garlic, etc.) to continue building the flavor base.
Yeah. I know. Couldn’t I have skipped a step and included onions in with these veggies? Sure. I guess so. But onions are that freaking important to me. I don’t even bother cooking if there are no onions. It’s cereal or starvation all around. Plus, a lot of these veggies are more tender than onions, so I like to add them later so they don’t burn and pick up a bitter taste, especially garlic.
Step 5: Liquid
Add liquid (think: water, broth, beer, wine, soy sauce, etc.).
At this point, we’ve effectively built the flavor base. No. It’s not the long-simmering flavor base that you’ll get in a fine French restaurant, but it’ll do. So now, we’re going to slow down the cooking with liquid.
What you use (and how much you use) at this point depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re making a soup, you’ll want to add maybe a cup of vegetable or chicken broth and a cup of plain old water. If you’re making a roast, half a cup of beef broth will suffice. If you’re making Mongolian beef, it’ll be a slightly more complex mix of soy sauce, sweetener, and water.
Use your common sense and don’t be afraid to experiment, make notes, and try a different amount or ratio next time.
Step 6: Protein
Add protein (think: beans, chicken, beef, etc.).
Usually, this is beans for us, but I made a mean ropa vieja yesterday using the exact same formula. I’ve also made General Tso’s chicken using the exact same formula. So I guess any protein will do. Important note: if you’re using meat, season it first. In fact, Michael Ruhlman recommends salting meat as soon as you bring it home in his book Ruhlman’s Twenty, a.k.a. one of the best books I read in 2017.
Step 7: Veggies
Add whatever veggies you want (think: tomatoes, potatoes, carrots for texture, etc.).
Here’s a caveat. If you’re cooking a protein that requires a longer cook time (think: beans), you may want to add these veggies at a later point, after you’ve already done some pressure cooking (see Step 8). However, if the veggies are meant to break down, think tomatoes in Ethiopian red red or okra in gumbo, now’s the time to throw ’em in the pot.
Step 8: Pressure Cook
Seal and set Instant Pot to pressure cook for the desired amount of time.
So here’s where you need to know your pressure cooker and your ingredients, especially your proteins. It wouldn’t be much of a formula if it couldn’t be adjusted to a variety of circumstances. Obviously, beans are going to take longer than chicken, and some beans take longer than other beans. Catfish, on the other hand, takes just a few minutes. Experiment, experiment, experiment.
For dishes that take longer, I usually pressure cook in two stages. That way, I have a chance to peek into the pot and stir things up, which keeps me from having a few chewy beans in every pot. (Some of those guys are floaters.) This is also a good time to add more tender veggies (see Step 7) so they don’t get over-cooked.
Step 9: Herbs and Additional Seasonings
Add any dried or fresh herbs, additional salt and pepper, etc.
Like some tender veggies, dried herbs can get a bitter, burned taste if you add them too early, so I usually add dried herbs at the halfway point of pressure cooking or just wait until the end to stir them in along with fresh herbs and last minute seasoning staples like salt and pepper.
I’ve been playing around with this formula for about a month now, and I’ve used it to make ropa vieja, catfish curry, kone ni makondo, sesame beef, and a preposterous variety of beans. For me, it’s become a fast, easy way to intuitively learn to cook dishes that I enjoy when I’m dining out, which is kind of the point.
I don’t want to have to rely on a restaurant for my favorite meal because we’re not staying in this port forever. I don’t want to rely on recipes because the ingredients available to us will vary depending on where we’re moored. I want to know how to cook…real good.
Why recipes aren’t the answer for me
Recently, while listening to an episode of Hidden Brain****, I heard about an experiment in which children were given a toy that could perform several functions. If the researcher gave them the toy with no instructions, the kids invariably figured out everything that the toy could do. However, if the researcher showed the kids one thing that the toy could do, the kids didn’t bother experimenting to see what else it could do.
I’ve always had a suspicion that’s how cooking (and life in general) works. When we rely on strict sets of instructions, we learn how to cook specific things, but we’re often too intimidated to stray from those instructions to apply the same skills and knowledge to other things. We begin to think of instructions as rules rather than suggestions.
What happens when you don’t have access to the ingredients you’re familiar with? What happens if you no longer have all of the tools you need?
In those cases, knowing one hundred specific recipes might not do you any good.
On the other hand, having a flexible formula allows you to experiment and to adapt to changing circumstances.
I thought I’d post a few ways that I’ve used the formula in the coming weeks. It’ll keep me from dedicating more blog space to bitching about all the things that I’ve already bitched about (think: extreme temperatures, perpetual discomfort, and occasional terror) and focused on sharing what I can do with what I have got.
If you’ve got some questions, comments, or even better, DARES, share them in the Comments section below. I wager I can cook just about any savory dish using this formula.
P.S. I actually have two inner pots for my Instant Pot, owing to a happy accident. To be perfectly transparent, I skipped my real Step 1, which is Make rice. We eat rice with just about every meal as it makes eating soup with a fork much easier, and it makes dishes more filling without adding a lot of cost. I normally have that cooking while I’m prepping for the main dish. It takes about ten minutes in the Instant Pot and is always PERFECT!
P.P.S. You may be thinking, “Yeah, but what if something happens to your Instant pot?” Right now, that would be a tragedy as it is essentially the whole of our galley. However, I started dabbling with a formulaic approach to cooking while we were still on land. I essentially followed the same steps, but in a pot on the stove. I just made a bigger mess and used more equipment. Really, you could use the same formula over a campfire in a pot; it would just take a lot longer.
*Please don’t send spoons. We’ll get a couple more spoons. I promise. It just hasn’t been a priority. Also, we’re building up a resistance to one another’s disgusting germs**.
**Okay. That last bit is just science posturing.
***That’s a perk of being a witch.
****I think that’s the right episode, but with limited entertainment options, we listen to a lot of podcasts. Regardless, this is a really good episode, and you should listen to it anyway.