(NYTIMES) - The hardest ingredient to find for any weeknight recipe is time. Tuesdays after work just don't have a lot of it, and it's not as if you can order it online.
A slow cooker can help by doing the cooking while you're at the office. Just load it up in the morning and come home after work to a fragrant, hearty meal.
The big thing missing here is spontaneity. If you're not the kind of cook who can commit to and then start prepping your dinner before you're fully caffeinated - or if you just can't get yourself organised to start cooking in advance at all - a slow cooker won't do you much good.
But a multicooker like the Instant Pot just might.
A multicooker is dinnertime convenience in stainless steel form, an appliance that combines an electric pressure cooker with a slow cooker, electric steamer and rice cooker.
Several manufacturers make multicookers, including Breville and Fagor, but Instant Pot has become the best known in the United States. (Note that while most multicookers include a pressure-cooking function, there are some models that only slow cook, so check before you buy.)
There's no other single gadget that can make weeknight cooking easier. It can cook food either quickly or slowly, and it does both consistently, evenly and automatically. Get one, and you can get rid of your slow cooker.
I bought a multicooker almost a year ago to report on for The New York Times. I figured that after publishing my article, I'd stick the machine in the basement with all the other once-in-a-while appliances (like that electric deep fryer). Then I'd dig it out for braising the occasional large hunk of meat to tender perfection, which, as I immediately discovered, it does better than any other piece of equipment - Dutch ovens and slow cookers included.
Over time, though, the multicooker became so embedded in the rhythm of my everyday cooking that I never unplugged it. I ended up writing my new cookbook for it, "Dinner in an Instant" (Clarkson Potter), as well as an in-depth guide at nytcooking.com. It was the slow cooker that went into storage, where it will remain until my next stoop sale.
What I especially love about the multicooker is its inherent flexibility, pleasing cooks of all temperaments.
If you're an organised, plan-ahead type of person, you can use your multicooker exactly like a slow cooker. Just use the slow-cook setting with any of your old favorite slow-cooker recipes without even having to adjust them.
Culinary procrastinators, on the other hand, can take full advantage of the pressure setting, which cooks food in minutes instead of hours.
I'm in the latter camp, and so this is my routine: On the way home from work, I stop at the store for some beans or grains or a package of chicken thighs. I throw them into the pot with a mix of interesting seasonings. Then I make a salad while the pot does its thing.
That's it. A satisfying dish that would normally take an hour or more is on the table in 20 to 30 minutes.
Now earthy soups, supple stews and luscious braises are within reach for winter weeknights, instead of being relegated to weekends when I have hours to let them simmer. In the summer, I can quickly cook beans and grains for salads without heating up the kitchen, or steam artichokes without having to stare at a pot on the stove. I don't even have to be home.
No matter the season, my basic strategy for using my multicooker on weeknights remains constant: I estimate how many minutes I have before I want dinner to be on the table and work backward from there.
Often, getting my meal done in the shortest amount of time is simply a matter of how you cut up the ingredients - the smaller the pieces, the faster they will cook. So while a whole brisket or boneless pork shoulder might take 90 minutes to braise under pressure, beef stew meat cut into 4cm pieces, or pork ribs cut into two or three rib sections, will be tender in 20 to 25 minutes. Save the large, impressive, company-worthy pieces of meat for when you have more time.
You can apply the same method for dense root vegetables like beets and potatoes. While whole roots usually need about 20 to 30 minutes to cook, slices or cubes take five to 10 minutes.
Because I rarely plan ahead, one of my favorite multicooker tricks is to cook dried beans on a weeknight without soaking them first. Of course, you can't cut them up to make them cook more quickly, but you can select smaller beans. When time is tight, buy lentils, split peas or adzuki beans, which cook from their dried, unsoaked state in under 20 minutes. Save the chickpeas, kidney beans and cannellinis for when you've got close to an hour.
As for those chicken thighs, my go-to method is to buy them boneless, cut them into pieces and then throw them in the pot with pretty much any combination of spices, aromatics and condiments, to cook in under 10 minutes. Add barbecue sauce and you'll get barbecued chicken.
Coconut milk, a can of tomatoes and garam masala result in a creamy, curry-like dish. A squirt each of sriracha, lime juice, soya sauce and honey, along with a grated garlic clove, gives you something far tastier than it should for the amount of work you put in. If you use breasts instead of thighs, they'll cook even more quickly, though be careful not to overdo it because they'll dry out.
After using the machine consistently for nearly a year, I can say that if you stick to what it does best - stewing, braising, simmering, steaming - you'll be amply rewarded. Just don't attempt to cook anything crunchy or golden, because it probably won't end well. No matter how many multicooker roast chicken recipes you may stumble across on the internet, don't believe them. I've tried it several times: The skin ends up soft and flabby instead of crisp and salty, and the meat turns stringy.
If you play to the multicooker's many strengths and remain aware of its weaknesses, you won't be disappointed. You'll also eat better - even at the last minute.
Pressure Cooker Sticky Tamarind Baby Back Ribs
Yield: Four servings
Time: One hour, 15 minutes
1.6kg to 2.3kg baby back ribs
1 tsp kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/4 cup tamarind paste or concentrate
1/4 cup fresh orange juice (from about 1/2 orange)
1/4 cup honey, plus more as needed
2 Tbsp soya sauce
1/4 tsp grated lime zest
1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
1 star anise pod
2 Tbsp neutral oil, such as safflower or canola
4 small shallots, diced (about 1/3 cup)
1 1/2 tsp grated peeled fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, grated on a Microplane or minced
1. Cut the ribs into chunks of two or three ribs, depending on their size, and place them in a large bowl. Toss with 1 tsp salt, and set aside while you prepare the sauce.
2. In a small bowl, combine the tamarind, orange juice, honey, soya sauce, lime zest and juice and star anise. Set aside.
3. Using the saute function, heat the oil in the pressure cooker. Stir in the shallots and cook until they are starting to brown, about five minutes. Stir in the ginger and garlic and cook until fragrant, another minute, then stir in the tamarind mixture. Bring to a simmer, and then scrape the sauce into the large bowl of ribs. Toss gently to combine.
4. Arrange the ribs standing up along the outer edge of the pressure cooker, making a ring with the meat side of the ribs facing out. Continue with the remaining ribs, arranging them to make concentric circles. Pour any remaining sauce over the ribs, cover and cook on high pressure for 32 minutes. Allow the pressure to release naturally.
5. Heat the broiler.
6. Transfer the ribs, meat-side down, to a rimmed baking sheet. Turn the pressure cooker to the saute function and cook to reduce the sauce until it's thick, about 15 minutes; spoon the fat off the top when finished. Taste the sauce, and adjust the seasoning or add more honey if necessary; then brush the ribs with the sauce. Broil the ribs until they are charred in spots, one to three minutes. Then flip them over, brush with more sauce, and broil on that side until charred. Serve immediately, with more sauce on the side.
If you'd rather use a slow cooker, add 3/4 cup water to the machine when adding the sauce in Step 4. Cook the ribs on high for four to five hours or on low for six to eight hours. Remove the ribs, reduce the sauce and broil as described in Step 6.
Pressure Cooker Coconut Curry Chicken
Yield: Four servings
Time: One hour
3 to 4 ripe tomatoes, halved through their equators
3 Tbsp ghee, unsalted butter or safflower oil
3 Tbsp virgin coconut oil
2 cups finely chopped onions
6 garlic cloves, grated on a Microplane or minced
2 Tbsp grated, peeled fresh ginger
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 7.5cm cinnamon stick or 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
8 cardamom pods, lightly crushed with the flat side of a knife, or 1 tsp ground cardamom
2 tsp ground coriander
1 Tbsp kosher salt
1 tsp ground turmeric
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp black pepper
1.1kg boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 2.5cm chunks
1 to 2 tsp garam masala, to taste
1/2 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk
Cooked basmati rice, for serving (optional)
Plain yoghurt, for serving (optional)
3 Tbsp finely chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
1. Set a box grater over a bowl. Starting with their cut sides, grate the tomatoes through the large holes of the box grater so the tomato pulp falls into the bowl. Discard the skins. Measure out two cups of tomato puree.
2. Using the saute function, heat the ghee and the coconut oil in the pressure cooker. Stir in the onions and cook, stirring often to encourage even browning, until they are caramelised, 12 to 18 minutes. Stir in the garlic, ginger and cumin seeds; cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Stir in the cinnamon and cardamom and cook for another minute. Then stir in the coriander, salt, turmeric, red pepper flakes, black pepper and finally the tomato puree.
3. Add the chicken to the sauce, cover and cook on low pressure for four minutes. Let the pressure release naturally. If the sauce seems too thin, use a slotted spoon to transfer the chicken to a bowl and then simmer the sauce on the saute setting until it has thickened to taste. (Note that the coconut milk will thin the sauce down further.) Stir in the garam masala and the coconut milk, and let the curry sit for 20 minutes for the flavours to meld. Serve with the rice and yoghurt, if desired. Garnish with cilantro.
If you'd rather use a slow cooker, cook on high for two to three hours or on low for four to five hours, adding the coconut milk during the last hour.