Steamy Summer Nights
Why the most versatile — and neglected — cooking technique is the absolute best for the hot months
By day three of the fluke Pacific Northwest heat wave last week, I had it up to here with raw vegetables. No matter how hot the kitchen is, a cook's gotta cook. Does anyone really eat salad for dinner all summer? Of course not. Nor do you want the oven or stove on for hours, or to eat all your meals off grill grates.
Enter steaming, perhaps the most misunderstood of all cooking methods. As with its evil stepsisters boiling (good for little more than pasta, stock, and certain seafood celebrations) and poaching (acceptable for eggs, salmon, and chicken if you know your way around a slotted spatula or spoon), the heat delivery system is water.
But with steaming, since the food isn't submerged in a roiling pot of liquid, you can easily keep an eye on things. Bye-bye waterlogging. The cooking happens quickly and efficiently above the fray, under a watchful eye and prodding knife tip. Anticipate, slow, or stop doneness before it's too late. And because it doesn't take long to bring an inch of water to a bubble—and even less time to steam in a microwave oven—and you cook with the lid on, you're barely transferring any heat into the kitchen.
Also in the pro-steaming column: capturing the freshness, color, and texture of peak seasonal produce to enjoy immediately or chill for later. What a terrific way to salvage anything languishing in the refrigerator drawers. You can cook a big batch of something then season and dress it differently each time you serve some. Plus, the methods also work on tofu, chicken, and seafood. This. This is what makes steaming the best way to cook in summer.
What follows is a photo-driven walk-through of techniques, recipes, and ideas:
Steaming Over Boiling Water
How to Rig a Steamer
Steam Any Vegetable (A Master Recipe)
Anticipate Doneness or Stop Cooking
10 Easy Ways to Use Steamed Vegetables
Links to More Steamed Stuff
Steaming Over Boiling Water
Whether you have a designated covered pot fitted with a basket, an electric steamer, or two plates that fit well in your faithful Dutch oven, the mechanics of steaming remain the same: Keep the food above water that's boiling steadily enough to generate steam; provide space above the food for the steam to circulate and form a convection of heat; and stop the cooking a little before your desired doneness. (More on that below.)
How you prepare food for steaming is a personal matter, decided case by case. The advantage of even-size pieces is that they cook evenly. This might be considered a disadvantage if you a) have a devil-may-care attitude at the cutting board, or b) prefer multiple textures in your mouth at the same time. I can only advise that since steaming applies heat by swirling vaporized water in a compact space, if you cut food the same way, it will cook the same way.
Whatever you choose, the food will cook fast. The master recipe that follows in a couple clicks provides some timing guidelines for different vegetables. The best way, though, is to check early and often, looking for clues with changing color; aroma; and resistance when poked with a thin knife, fork, or skewer. In reality, soft vegetables are never a crime; they're always useful and often desirable.
How to Rig a Steamer
If you don’t have a basket or liner, rig a steamer with two heatproof plates or shallow bowls that fit comfortably in the bottom of a large pot or Dutch oven. Put one upside down in the water, the other right side up on top of the first. Add enough water to the pot so that it just submerges the upside-down plate while keeping the upright plate high and dry.
I steam vegetables in the microwave almost every day. (And tofu once a week.) As long as you commit to periodic stopping and checking, it's just too easy to resist. And the idea that their internal water gets excited and produces steam to cook so beautifully is exciting to visualize.
Put the vegetables on a microwave-safe plate or in a shallow bowl. You only need to splash them with a little water; don’t drown them. And greens need nothing. Cover loosely with a towel, a vented microwave cooking lid, or another microwave-safe plate (inverted).
Since timing will depend on your microwave’s power, cook in 2-minute bursts on high until you’re comfortable with how your machine behaves. Every minute or two, stop the machine and—being careful of wafting steam—check for doneness. Look for color cues and the level of resistance when poked, always compensating for the effect of continued cooking as the food sits and cools. (Or stop cooking quickly as described below.)
Steam Any Vegetable
Makes: 4 servings
Time: 30 to 40 minutes, depending on the vegetable
By thinking of vegetables in three wildly general categories—greens, tender, and hard—all you need is this recipe to prepare and cook virtually everything. The “greens” category includes the most delicate, like watercress, spinach, and arugula, as well as those that require longer cooking, like collards and escarole. What we call “tender” vegetables are those that are firm but pliable when raw: celery, green beans, asparagus, snow peas, sugar snap peas, broccoli, cauliflower, and mushrooms, and those that fit the description when you chop or slice them, like eggplant, zucchini, cabbage, onions, leeks, shallots, and fennel. Everything else is “hard”: root vegetables, tubers (like potatoes), and winter squashes.
For each vegetable in a category, you control how long it takes to cook by choosing how to cut or slice it. Even hard vegetables like beets and sweet potatoes will cook relatively quickly when they’re cut in pieces less than 1 inch thick; they’ll cook fastest if you grate them. Making peace with the peels—which are nutritious and can actually be delicious—saves you several minutes of prep time.
And though this recipe is designed for vegetables, you can steam fish fillets or chunks, shelled or shell-on shellfish or mollusks, or boneless chicken breasts the same way. The latter will take 5 to 10 minutes but the seafood will usually be ready in 3 to 5 minutes.
1½ pounds any vegetable
Salt and pepper (optional)
1. If you have a pot with a steaming insert or an electric steamer with a basket, lucky you—use that and add enough water to almost reach the insert. Or set up a steamer as described above. Make sure the water isn't touching the food.
2. Trim the vegetables and peel them if necessary. For greens, chop them if you like, especially any sturdy stems. For other vegetables, cut them into chunks or slices.
3. Bring the water in the pot to a boil. Put the vegetables in the insert or basket (or on the plate) and adjust the heat so the water bubbles vigorously without splashing onto the food. Cover the pot.
4. Start checking for doneness after 2 minutes by piercing with the tip of a knife. Since the vegetables will continue to cook even when they’re out of the steamer, take them out when they’re slightly firmer than you ultimately want them. The tenderest greens and smallest chunks will be ready in as little as 2 minutes; root vegetables might take up to 20, depending on how you cut them. So just check often until you get the hang of estimating. And if you need to add water to the bottom of the pot, please do so.
5. If you're eating right away, sprinkle with salt and pepper and finish however you like to eat hot vegetables. To stop cooking for chilling or using in another recipe, follow the directions in the section that follows and dress or use as described here. Keep steamed vegetables refrigerated in airtight containers for up to a week.
—Recipe adapted from How to Cook Everything Fast, Revised Edition