THERE'S a lot of talk these days about natural flavor and freshness. If there's one cooking technique that emphasizes those two qualities more than any other, it's steaming.
When you steam, you get the pure personality of the food, for better or worse. There is no olive oil to soften and marry the ingredients. No sweet butter to compensate for less than perfect produce. No high, dry heat to add a charred crust.
And yet, steaming can produce some of the most satisfying, light meals you can imagine. And the easiest too: With a little thought, you can put together an entire dinner in a single pot.
The trick to doing it well is a matter of choosing ingredients with care. When I plan a "steamer" supper, I begin with a starchy vegetable such as red or Yukon Gold potatoes or squash. Then I add one or two other vegetables; they will determine the character of the dish. You want the flavors to naturally complement each other, since there won't be a puddle of broth or sauce to bring them together.
The possibilities are limited only by what's in the market, but some good combinations are the potatoes with green and yellow beans, or carrots and Brussels sprouts, or asparagus and whole mushrooms. Think seasonally, of course. You want the freshest you can find.
Once that's settled, it's time to think about adding a touch of richness. Some meat or fish will do that, and so will a simple dipping sauce.
One of my favorite steaming meats is fully cooked chicken or turkey sausage. Jumbo shrimp or scallops also are great -- just add them at the end of steaming so they don't overcook.
For subtle notes, try sprinkling whole fresh herbs or slivered ginger over the vegetables while they're steaming.
As for the sauce, I like the lightness and tang of plain yogurt mixed with chopped herbs and minced garlic, along with Spike seasoning. (If you're pinched for time, just sprinkle the Spike over the vegetables, and serve plain yogurt alongside.) Or go in an Asian direction by making a basic dipping sauce from soy sauce, vinegar, ginger and hot sauce. (The quick alternative: plain soy sauce.)
There are just a couple of other things to keep in mind. Steamers come in many sizes and shapes so the steaming time will vary. For even cooking, be sure to cut food into uniform pieces. While you're cooking, check the level of the liquid in the bottom of the steamer to be sure it doesn't evaporate.
And remember, each time you lift the lid and that fragrant steam escapes, it will add a little extra time to the cooking.
One-pot mixed steamer
Total time: 30 minutes
1 cup plain yogurt
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh dill
1 tablespoon minced fresh tarragon
1 teaspoon all-purpose seasoning
3 boiling potatoes (about 1 pound), cut in 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 pound broccoli crowns, cut up
2 yellow squash, cut into 1-inch thick diagonal slices
2 fully cooked turkey sausages, cut into thirds
1. Stir together the yogurt, garlic, dill, tarragon and seasoning. Set aside.
2. Bring water to boil in the bottom of a 2-quart saucepan with a steamer insert set over, but not touching, the water. Place the potatoes in the insert, cover and steam over medium-high heat 5 minutes. Add the broccoli crowns; cover, and steam 5 minutes. Add the squash and sausages, cover, and steam another 4 to 5 minutes. Check the vegetables with the tip of a knife -- they should be crunchy yet tender. Steam a few minutes more, covered, if necessary.
3. To serve, arrange the vegetables on 2 plates. Spoon the yogurt sauce over the potatoes and season to taste.
Each serving: 562 calories; 1,516 mg. sodium; 112 mg. cholesterol; 23 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 62 grams carbohydrates; 31 grams protein; 7.70 grams fiber.
One-pot shrimp steamer
Total time: 20 minutes
Note: Asian chile sauce is sold in the Asian aisle of well-stocked supermarkets.
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup water
3 tablespoons sugar
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons slivered green onion, divided
2 tablespoons slivered fresh ginger root, divided
Dash Asian chile sauce
1/2 head bok choy, cut crosswise into 1-inch slices (about 6 cups)
6 shiitake mushrooms
2 cups Chinese pea pods
8 jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined
1. Stir together the soy sauce, rice vinegar, water, sugar, garlic, lemon juice, sesame oil and 1 tablespoon each of the green onion and ginger. Stir in the chile sauce to taste. Set aside.
2. Bring water to boil in the bottom of a 2-quart saucepan with a steamer insert set over, but not touching, the water. Arrange the mushrooms in the steamer, top side down. Place the bok choy over them and top with the remaining 1 tablespoon of ginger and green onion. Cover and steam over medium-high heat 5 minutes.
3. Add the pea pods and shrimp. Cover and steam until the shrimp are pink and firm and the pea pods are crisp yet tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Divide between 2 plates and serve with some of the sauce (reserve the rest for another use).
Each serving: 165 calories; 990 mg. sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 0 saturated fat; 30 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams protein; 7.86 grams fiber.