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The Joy Of Steam

For pure, clean flavor, go for the steam. The health benefits are just gravy.


Frying and sauteing may be adventurous ways to cook--at least they make a good amount of noise. But steam heat, so often overlooked as too austere, can open up a world of flavors.

Steaming brings out subtle nuances in food that often are lost with other cooking methods. It is an easy, gentle way of cooking food without the addition of fat. It also has the benefit of retaining most of the natural juices and nutrients in foods so that little or none is lost in the cooking process.

This talk of nutrients and fat reduction is partly to blame for steaming's sissy reputation. But it's hardly the wimp some cooks make it out to be, and it certainly isn't just for people watching their weight. Steam if it's flavor that you're after.

Of course, vegetables are a natural for steaming; they have pure, clean flavors that taste intensely of themselves. But we also tested several meat recipes in the steamer. We found that the method works especially well with fatty cuts of meat.

With corned beef, for instance, we found that the steam actually melts the fat, allowing it to drip off during steaming. When we trimmed the fat off the top of the corned beef and sliced it, it felt firm but was tender and juicy. It didn't fall apart and lacked the stringiness common in boiled beef.

We liked it so much, we risked including it in the Food section as an alternative to traditional boiled corned beef for St. Patrick's Day a couple of issues back. The response from readers has been overwhelmingly positive.

We also tried a boneless pot roast. Sliced and served with the juices spooned over the top as if it were a pot a feu, it was tender and delicious.

Chicken breast has a tendency to dry out when overcooked because of its lower fat content. But steam cooking produced a very moist whole chicken with the breast meat tender and juicy. We also steamed chicken breast halves (bone-in) for about 25 minutes with the same results--tender meat with no hint of dryness.

Even large birds like turkey can come out so tender and moist that the breast meat oozes juice when sliced.

Not all foods, however, are suitable for steaming. A stew we steamed didn't work out so well. Though we used top round, it took approximately 2 hours to steam the meat tender. When you steam a stew, the liquid does not evaporate as it would on top of the stove, so you end up with more liquid and less flavor. Also, if you intend to thicken your stew with a roux, you'll have to transfer it to the stove top, because the contents of the steamer do not reach the boiling point. To thicken a steamed stew, it would be better to use pureed vegetables.

You'll have no trouble, of course, with fish and seafood in a steamer. We seasoned a salmon steak lightly with salt and placed it on a bed of fresh tarragon leaves in the steamer basket and then covered it with more tarragon. A cut-up lemon was placed around the fish in the basket. The 1 1/4 inch-thick steak took about 15 minutes to cook and turned out moist and delicately flavored with tarragon. Other herb and fish combinations would work too. And shellfish takes just 10 minutes to steam. If you have a large electric steamer with a clear plastic lid, you can watch for the moment when the shells open and remove the food immediately--no more overcooked shellfish.

One of our favorite vegetables for steaming is bell peppers. They can easily be peeled immediately after cooking--no need to put them in a paper bag for 20 minutes. When steamed, they have a wonderfully vibrant flavor. They taste great eaten alone with a bit of good olive oil.

Potatoes are often baked and boiled, but when they are steamed, they come out fork-tender but don't break up or fall apart. It's a great way to cook potatoes for recipes such as potato salad, for which you don't want them to become mushy.

Beets also work well in the steamer. When you boil them, they need constant attention to make sure they're covered with water during the long cooking. When you steam them, you can basically ignore them. Choose beets that are about the same size and trim all but about an inch of the tops. They take about 45 minutes to steam.

Keep a few things in mind when steaming vegetables: Add the vegetables in the order of how long they take to cook, longest first, and remember that the closer a vegetable is to the steam, the faster it will cook.

Most people are familiar with steamed white rice. But what about brown and wild rice? We tried both, and they came out fluffy and evenly cooked, with no stickiness, burned saucepans or boiled-over pots--common problems with longer-cooking rice varieties. For steaming, combine 1 cup rice and 1 1/4 cups water in a heat-proof bowl or pan that will fit in a steamer and steam about 1 hour for brown rice and 1 hour and 15 minutes for wild rice.

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