The Joy Of Steam

TIMES TEST KITCHEN DIRECTOR

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.

Of course, you can take a good idea too far. We were so happy with our steamed brown and wild rice that we thought we'd try a steamed rice pudding. It didn't work. The pudding was thin, and the rice clumped together. It was, in a word, wimpy.

Steaming is also an excellent way to reheat foods without drying them out or burning them. It is especially good for reheating rice, vegetables or chicken, casseroles and meats.

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Steaming Tips

* Arrange food in a single layer in steamer baskets for even cooking.

* Allow space around foods in basket for even steaming.

* Try to have pieces of food about the same size for even cooking.

* If cooking several foods at once, place the food that will take longest to steam closest to the source of steam.

* When using stackable steamers, remember that the food in the upper levels will drip onto the food below, so be sure they're compatible.

* Remember, each time you remove the cover of the steamer to check the progress of cooking, the steam escapes, so add a few minutes extra cooking time.

* Yes, this is obvious, but open the steamer cover away from your face. That steam is hot!

* When steaming for more then 30 minutes, check the level of the liquid in the bottom of the steamer to make sure it doesn't evaporate. This is especially important when steaming on top of the stove.

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If You Want to Buy a Steamer . . .

* Decide what you want to use the steamer for. Do you want to steam meats or whole chickens? Or are you primarily interested in vegetables and rice? Check the size of the steamer basket to be sure it's large enough for your needs. Foods cook best when arranged in a single layer.

* Ask yourself whether you will be steaming often enough to warrant the purchase of an electric steamer. Remember, like any utensil, it takes up room in your kitchen. If you're an infrequent steamer or expect to steam only small amounts, there are double boilers with steamer inserts in assorted sizes. Pasta cookers are also available in larger sizes with steamer inserts.

* If you're looking at electric steamers, can you see through the sides of the steamer to check the progress of cooking without opening it? Does it have a timer? An automatic turnoff? Is it a stackable? Does it have a basket for steaming rice and liquids?

* The collapsible basket steamer is a favorite of many who are primarily interested in steaming vegetables. And of course, there's the traditional Asian bamboo steamer, which fits nicely on top of a wok for easy steaming. It can be used alone, or several may be stacked. There are also metal stackable steamers that work like the bamboo variety. Rice cookers can also be used as steamers, mainly for vegetables.

* A good heavy roasting pan with a lid works well for steaming. If you do not happen to have a lid, cover a deep pan with foil to steam. Put a rack in the bottom of the pan or even the lids from canning jars. Just about anything will work as long as it elevates the dish above the level of the boiling water.

STEAMED VEGETABLE PLATE

6 carrots, cut into 2-inch pieces

1/4 pound green beans, cut in thirds

4 red boiling potatoes, quartered then each quarter cut into 3 pieces

1 (1/2-pound) box mushrooms

1/2 cup goat's milk yogurt

Spike seasoning

Place carrots in single layer in steamer basket and steam 10 minutes. Add beans and potatoes to steamer and steam 15 minutes. Add mushrooms and steam until carrots are tender, about 5 minutes more.

Spoon into serving dishes. Spoon 1/4 cup yogurt over each serving and sprinkle with spike seasoning.

2 servings. Each serving:

256 calories; 123 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 54 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 4.20 grams fiber.

RICED STEAMED YUKON GOLD POTATOES

2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes

1/2 to 3/4 cup warm nonfat milk or nonfat chicken broth

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

White pepper

Basil Butter

Peel potatoes and cut into 2-inch pieces. Put potatoes in bowl of cold water as you peel them to prevent their turning brown.

Arrange potatoes in single layer in steamer basket and steam until fork tender, about 30 minutes. Put steamed potatoes through potato ricer. Stir in milk or broth, salt and white pepper. Spoon potatoes into serving bowl and serve with Basil Butter on the side.

6 servings. Each serving without butter:

120 calories; 610 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 27 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.60 gram fiber.

BASIL BUTTER

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter

2 teaspoons minced basil leaves

Melt butter in saucepan over low heat. Stir in basil and heat 1 to 2 minutes. Serve with Steamed Riced Potatoes.

Variations: Substitute 2 teaspoons minced cilantro leaves, 2 teaspoons minced tarragon or 1 teaspoon minced rosemary for the basil.

1/4 cup. Each 1-tablespoon serving:

102 calories; 117 mg sodium; 31 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 0 carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0 fiber.

SEAFOOD IN BLACK BEAN SAUCE

1 pound Manila clams

4 stone crab claws

4 jumbo sea scallops

1 tablespoon peanut oil

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped ginger root

2 tablespoons chopped green onions

3 tablespoons fermented black beans

3 tablespoons light soy sauce

2 tablespoons rice wine

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 cup nonfat low-sodium chicken broth

1 teaspoon sesame oil

4 slices lemon

8 large shrimp with heads

Cilantro leaves

Divide clams, crab claws and scallops between 2 deep-dish serving plates or pie plates that will fit in steamer basket.

Heat peanut oil in wok until hot. Add garlic, ginger and green onions and stir-fry until tender, about 1 minute. Stir in black beans and stir-fry 1 minute. Stir in soy sauce, rice wine, sugar and broth. Bring to simmer and stir in sesame oil. Pour evenly over seafood on each plate and tuck lemon slices into seafood.

Cover each plate with foil. Steam 1 plate 5 minutes. Add 4 shrimp and steam until clams open, shrimp are pink and scallops are no longer translucent, about 5 minutes. Remove from steamer and cover with foil to keep warm. Repeat with second plate of seafood and remaining 4 shrimp. Sprinkle with cilantro leaves.

2 servings. Each serving:

449 calories; 1,248 mg sodium; 162 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 17 grams carbohydrates; 54 grams protein; 0.21 gram fiber.

STEAMED KOHLRABI SOUP

2 1/2 pounds kohlrabi

1 bulb fennel, about 3/4 pound

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 cup minced onion

2 (14 1/2-ounce) cans nonfat low-sodium chicken broth

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons minced dill weed

1/3 cup nonfat sour cream

Cut stems and leaves off kohlrabi. Peel bulbs and cut into 2-inch pieces. Arrange in single layer in steamer basket and steam until fork tender, 25 to 35 minutes.

Cut tops off fennel and cut bulb into 1-inch pieces. Arrange fennel in single layer in steamer basket and steam until tender, about 20 minutes.

Melt butter in skillet over medium heat. Add onions and saute until softened, 2 to 3 minutes.

Puree steamed kohlrabi and fennel and onion in batches in blender with chicken broth. Blend in salt. Stir in dill weed. Serve with dollop of sour cream on each serving.

6 cups. Each 1-cup serving:

103 calories; 860 mg sodium; 5 mg cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 17 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 1.97 grams fiber.

CELERY ROOT FLAN

This recipe was adapted from Jacques Maiere's "The Art of Cooking With Steam" (Morrow, 1995).

3/4 pound celery root

1/4 cup nonfat sour cream

1/2 cup nonfat egg substitute (equivalent to 2 eggs)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Butter

Trim celery root and peel. Cut into 3/4-inch cubes. Steam until tender, about 20 minutes. Puree steamed celery root with sour cream in blender. Blend in egg substitute, salt and pepper.

Divide into 4 buttered 4-ounce custard cups. Cover custard cups with buttered aluminum foil buttered side down and steam until knife inserted near center comes out clean, about 15 minutes.

4 servings. Each serving:

55 calories; 282 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 1.10 grams fiber.

STEAMED CHICKEN

CHICKEN

1 (3 1/2-pound) chicken

Salt

2 green onions

3 (1/4-inch-thick) slices ginger root

4 sprigs cilantro

1/2 bunch watercress

SAUCE

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

2 tablespoons chicken broth

2 tablespoons minced green onions

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

1 teaspoon minced ginger root

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1/2 teaspoon sugar

CHICKEN

Season inside cavity of chicken with salt to taste. Cut white bulb end of green onions into eighths and put inside chicken cavity with ginger. Tie legs of chicken together and tuck wings under chicken.

Put chicken on platter and place cilantro sprigs on top of chicken. Put 1 inch water in bottom of steamer and put platter on rack in steamer. Bring to simmer. Cover and steam until juice runs clear when pricked with fork, about 1 hour. Check water level periodically during steaming and add more water if needed.

Remove chicken from steamer. Remove cilantro, green onions and ginger from chicken. Remove skin from chicken, cut into pieces and bone. Slice meat and arrange on platter. Garnish with watercress.

SAUCE

Combine soy sauce, broth, green onions, lemon juice, cilantro, ginger, garlic, sesame oil and sugar. Serve with chicken.

4 servings. Each serving:

423 calories; 987 mg sodium; 139 mg cholesterol; 29 grams fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 36 grams protein; 0.14 gram fiber.

* Rebecca Wood pottery bowls from Zero Minus Plus, Santa Monica

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