A gadget for microwave cooking? Color me skeptical. But that's exactly what the Cook-Zen Microwave Pot ($32.99 from amazon.com) is all about. It's surprisingly amazing—and not just for the college student. As much as I wish I'd had this baby years ago when a microwave at the end of the hall was all I'd had, the Cook-Zen pot has allowed me to become lazier, more ambitious, and somewhat healthier all in one fell swoop. Sound impossible? Believe it.
Machiko Chiba, a Japanese woman with a great monogram (and better cooking philosophy) has been making strides with her microwave pot throughout her home country for years now, but thanks to Korin, it's starting to resonate with home cooks here in the States as well. The pot is fine enough on its own, but its companion cookbooks (sold separately for roughly $12 apiece or with the pot for $58.12) make a big difference in how much or how often you'll use it. Given that I don't normally cook chicken in my microwave, for instance, I'm reluctant to experiment too much on my own and risk unsafe temperatures.
So how does it work? Imagine the intersection between a pressure cooker and a steamer, rolled into a food-safe plastic microwavable pot. A slotted strainer fits inside, allowing fat to drain off from recipes that are lean to begin with—rarely do they ever use more than a half tablespoon of oil. The pot and strainer are fitted with two interlocking lids, whose settings allow for vents to open and close. There aren't many factors that you'd need to change or control at play, but that doesn't exactly make it intuitive, either. Hence the need for the cookbooks.
The thing that makes this little contraption so addicting-ly great is how versatile, and more importantly, how fast it is. A few nights ago, beef short ribs were cooked in 13 minutes. A few nights before that, curry chicken in nine. Chili in 16, bouillabaisse in nine, enough risotto for four in 12. Soups, stews, appetizers, even desserts—and not a recipe over 20 minutes. Seriously.
And while you're definitely sacrificing something in terms of texture when it comes to certain proteins—I wouldn't attempt lamb chops or filets, which are nothing without a crusty sear and rare interior—the recipes I've tested are timed perfectly to retain juiciness and flavor. Frankly, at the end of the day, all you've done is put a pot in the microwave. Whoa. Sure, the sauce sometimes strains away with the fat, but you've got an easy choice on your hands (sauce or fat? Duh) and dinner made it on the table in lightning speed.
If you're going to choose one of the two cookbooks, go with The Cook-Zen Way to Eat ($12.92, amazon.com), whose international recipes better show off the versatility of the pot (the other book is far more Asian-inspired) and require very few ingredients across the board. Given that I'd never make bouillabaisse on a hectic weeknight—or Sea Bass Pot-au-Feu, or anything fancy-sounding like that—this affords me more variety and excitement (not to mention pride) in my range of quick, affordable, in-a-pinch meals. In my kitchen, that's pretty priceless.