How to cook with steam

asparagus

If you've dawdled over perfect dim sum dumplings, savored a tamale or partied at a clambake, you've enjoyed the fragrant, haunting flavors that can result from cooking with steam. Mention of steam often calls to mind bland vegetables. But steaming offers a world of options to those willing to experiment.

Consider those allegedly bland vegetables

Swap the roiling water beneath the steamer insert or basket for broth, wine or sake. Sprinkle those broccoli tops or julienned carrots with chopped fresh herbs, smashed lemongrass, diced chiles, your favorite combination of spices, or fresh citrus zest and a squeeze of juice. Consider doing the same with fish, tofu or noodles. Now you're on your way to creating something extraordinary.

Best candidates for steaming

Western cooking generally calls for vegetables or fish to be steamed. Eastern cuisines steam just about anything, from pork and duck to tender noodles and delicate, doughy pastries and buns, often marinating each ingredient beforehand to infuse the dish with even more layers of flavor. And it's true, you really can steam just about anything: whole eggs, artichokes, mussels, root vegetables, winter squash, cauliflower, asparagus.

Benefits of steaming

Steaming offers several benefits over other cooking methods: It takes only a few minutes, it requires no fat, and unlike boiling, it avoids the loss of nutrients through leaching. All you need to get started is a vessel for your stovetop with some type of insert that will hold the ingredients above the boiling liquid at the bottom, plus a lid to trap the steam to let it circulate and work its magic.

Here's a look at what you'll need to cook with steam:

  • Either a classic steamer pot with a perforated smaller insert that sits inside; a wok with stacking bamboo steamer baskets; your own lidded pot outfitted with a collapsible metal insert, a silicone insert or a bamboo basket (most PCC locations carry steamer inserts); or an electric steamer.
  • Seasonings such as fresh herbs, spice blends or rubs; green onion; or aromatics including garlic and ginger. Sprinkle these atop ingredients, add to the liquid below, or use with various condiments to marinate your ingredients pre-steam.
  • Liquid for the bottom: typically water, broth or wine. Get it to a gentle boil before adding ingredients, then add the lid. Keep a second pot of liquid boiling for last-minute refills.
  • Cabbage leaves or parchment paper to line your steaming insert or basket and prevent delicate or starchy items from sticking. Parchment paper also work wells to cook fish or vegetables in their own juices in a packet, a method called "en papillote."

by Karen Gaudette, PCC Taste, March 2012

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