The holiday feasting is now behind us.
For some of us, literally.
For me (and most other men), however, it's right in front, straining my waistband and belt, not to mention shirt and jacket buttons.
A lot of us make a New Year's resolution to do something about it, but then quickly fall back into old eating habits and cooking patterns, using the poor excuse that we don't have time to be careful - in short, pretty much insuring that our resolve will weaken and fail us.
We needn't. There's one simple, easy, and fast kitchen technique that can help us stay the course, one that doesn't take extra time and effort and may even save a bit of both: steaming.
It requires no added fat, demands very little of the cook, and is faster than going through a drive-through. Moreover, it keeps everything moist and juicy, preserves the texture and flavor of vegetables, and lends poultry, delicate fish, and shellfish a lovely, velvety texture.
There are a number of kitchen tools specially designed for steaming: inserts that fit into a larger pot or sit on top of it, the stacking bamboo steamers of Asia, even countertop appliances such as rice cookers. They do make the job easier, but they're not absolutely essential to have in order to accomplish the technique successfully.
All that's required is a sealed chamber, enough moisture - either from the food itself or from added liquid - to create the steam, and a way of keeping the food above the moisture so that only the steam touches it.
If you have a pot with a fairly heavy bottom and tight-fitting lid, the food can be elevated above a bath of water or aromatic liquid with a trivet, a combination of a trivet and heat-proof dish, or simply a chunky bed of moisture-rich vegetables such as chunks of onion, carrot and celery, or a "rack" created with a few crisscrossed whole carrots or celery ribs.
One Asian homemaker's trick for steaming in a wok is to fit it with a plate set over crisscrossed chopsticks.
And if you don't even have the right pot or even a wok, the food can be wrapped in lettuce, bamboo, cabbage leaves, or a tight packet of foil or parchment and put into the oven, where it will steam in its own moisture.
The only drawback to this technique is that there's no other form of cooking in which the ingredients are so exposed. Which means that the end result will only be as good as the raw material you bring to it. There's nothing here to hide inferior, past-its-prime produce, tough, flavor-deficient meat and poultry, or old fish.
Deficiencies in the raw material can, in part, be compensated for with careful seasoning or by finishing with a well-made sauce, but steaming cannot coax flavor from or improve the texture of something that doesn't have much going for it to begin with.
That doesn't mean that your grocery bill needs to increase: quality and cost don't necessarily go together. It just means that you'll need to shop with more care and use the best ingredients that you can afford.
Here are a few simple, lovely ideas for getting your own kitchen all steamed up - in a good way.
Basic Steamed Vegetables
This is especially good for asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, and whole baby squash. You can also steam new potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and winter squash that have been cut into chunks.
1 1/2 pounds asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, or whole baby squash
1. Prepare steamer pot or pot with steamer insert with at least 1 inch of water, cover, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Meanwhile, trim and cut vegetables: asparagus can be left whole or cut into 2-inch lengths - trim bottom and peel tough part of stem; cut broccoli into florets, peel stem and cut in half lengthwise, then into 2-inch pieces; cut cauliflower into florets; trim blossom and stem ends of squash but leave whole.
2. When water is boiling, put vegetables into steamer insert and carefully place in or over pot. Cover and raise heat to high. Steam 2 minutes. Season lightly with salt, and steam until done to your taste, from 2-6 minutes longer, depending on vegetable. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Steamed larger yellow squash or zucchini: Scrub under cold running water, trim, and cut 1 1/2 pounds squash into 1/2-inch slices. Thinly slice 1 medium yellow onion or 4 scallions. Layer squash and onions in steamer, seasoning each layer with salt and pepper to taste. If liked, add minced clove garlic and/or tablespoon chopped thyme or sage. Steam as above, omitting the salting after 2 minutes, until tender, about 5-8 minutes.
Kasma Loha-Unchit's Steamed Striped Bass with Chili-Lime Sauce
From her timeless classic "It Rains Fishes: Legends, Traditions, and the Joys of Thai Cooking" (Pomegranate Artbooks/1995). You can adapt this to other whole soft-fleshed fish such as snapper, trout, or flounder. You can also make it with filets, but the cooking time will be much less, so start checking it after about 5-6 minutes.
1 to 1 1/2 pounds very fresh whole striped bass (see notes above), scaled and cleaned
8-10 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
8-10 green Thai chili peppers (or other hot chili peppers), seeded and cut into thin threads, to taste
2 teaspoons chopped cilantro root or 1 tablespoon chopped stem
1/4 cup unsalted chicken or vegetable broth
2-3 tablespoons Thai fish sauce (nam bplah) or light soy sauce
3-4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice (1 Â½ to 2 limes)
2 green onions or scallions, thinly sliced
1. Rinse the cleaned fish and drain well. Cut diagonal gashes on both sides through to bone about 1 Â½ to 2 inches apart. Place on heat-proof serving platter large enough to hold fish that will fit on steamer rack. Platter should have some depth to catch juices.
2. Mix garlic, chili peppers, and cilantro root with broth. Add fish sauce and lime juice to make hot, salty, and limy sauce. Spoon and spread sauce evenly over fish. Top with green onions, place in steamer over simmering water and steam until firm, about 15 minutes. Serve hot.
Steamed Salmon with Lemon and Thyme
4 6-ounce wild salmon filets
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon thinly sliced chives
1 tablespoon finely chopped Italian parsley
2 whole lemons, thinly sliced
1. Prepare steamer pot or pot with steamer insert with at least 1 inch of water and 1/2 cup dry white wine. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and let simmer while you prepare fish. Line steamer insert with lettuce leaves and lay salmon over them. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with thyme. Completely cover each filet with lemon slices, overlapping slightly.
2. Place steamer insert in or over the prepared pot, cover, raise heat to medium high, and steam until fish is done to your taste, about 8-15 minutes depending on thickness. Remove filets from steamer to platter or individual plates, sprinkle parsley and chives, and serve immediately.
Marcia's Chinese-Style Steamed Flounder with Ginger and Scallions
This would also work with small snapper or snapper filets, or with shad fillets, which are now in season.
1 Â½ to 2 pounds whole flounder or 1 1/2 pounds flounder filets
About 1 inch ginger root, peeled
4 thin scallions
Light soy sauce
About 1 tablespoon peanut or canola oil
1. Prepare steamer pot or pot with steamer insert with at least 1 inch of water. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and let simmer while you prepare fish and seasonings. Pat fish dry. Lay on heat-proof plate and place in steamer insert or line steamer insert with lettuce leaves and place fish on top.
2. Cut ginger root into thin slices and cut each slice into fine julienne strips. Cut scallions into 1-inch lengths and cut into thin julienne strips. Sprinkle fish lightly with soy sauce and scatter ginger and scallions over.
3. Place steamer insert in or over prepared pot, cover, and steam until fish is firm and just cooked through, about 10-15 minutes for whole fish, 5-8 minutes for filets. When done, remove from steamer. Heat oil in small pan until sizzling hot and drizzle over fish. Serve hot.
Steamed Lemon-Thyme Chicken Breasts
2 large boneless chicken breasts
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
2 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or 2 teaspoons dried thyme
3 lemons, 2 juiced and 1 sliced
1 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
1. Lay sheet of plastic wrap on flat work surface and put chicken breasts on top, skin side up. Cover with second sheet of wrap and lightly pound with mallet or scaloppine pounder to uniform thickness. Season chicken with salt and pepper on both sides. Put into shallow glass bowl or zipper-locking storage bag. Sprinkle with Worcestershire to taste and thyme. Juice 2 lemons and pour over chicken. Cover bowl or seal bag and marinate at room temperature 30 minutes or refrigerated overnight.
2. Pour wine into steamer pot or pot with steamer insert and add enough chicken broth to make liquid at least 1 inch deep. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Line steamer insert with lettuce leaves. Remove chicken from marinade and lay over lettuce. Pour marinade over and cover with sliced lemon. Place in or over prepared pot, cover, and raise heat to medium high. Steam until chicken is just cooked through, about 8-10 minutes.
Steamed Whole Chicken, Chinese-Style
Steaming a whole chicken is a very simple process. But you will need is a wide, deep pot or large wok with a domed lid. If you don't have a wok, choose a deep, fairly wide Dutch oven or stock pot (I used a 9-quart enameled iron Dutch oven).
Though traditionally boiled and steamed chicken is served as-is with its dipping sauce, most Westerners don't care for pale, soft poultry skin. If that's the case in your household, brush the chicken with some of the dipping sauce before taking it to the table, or remove and discard the skin before brushing the meat with the sauce.
If your family likes only the dark meat or breast meat of the bird, substitute the same weight of whole, bone-in and skin-on breasts, thighs, or drumsticks.
1 small whole chicken, weighing about 3 to no more than 3 1/2 pounds
1 3-inch piece ginger, peeled
4 small scallions
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon rice wine or dry white vermouth
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
Ginger Dipping Sauce (Recipe follows)
1. Fit lidded wok or wide, deep pot with wire rack or trivet that will hold a dish at least 1 inch above bottom. Wipe chicken dry. Thinly slice ginger into rounds and cut each slice into fine julienne strips. Cut scallions into 2-inch lengths then cut each into fine julienne strips. Set aside about 2 tablespoons of green part of scallions for garnish (if soaked in cold water, they will curl).
2. Put 1/2 of remaining scallions and ginger in rimmed but shallow 8-9 inch round dish that will fit into pot (I used an 8-inch individual pasta bowl). Put about 1/2 of remaining ginger and scallion inside chicken cavity. Put chicken on prepared dish and sprinkle inside and out with salt, soy sauce and 1 tablespoon wine. Scatter remaining ginger and scallion strips over top of chicken.
4. Put dish on rack in prepared wok or pot. Add water to cover bottom by at least 1 inch. Cover and put over high heat. When boiling, adjust heat to steady but not hard boil and steam until tender and cooked through, about 40-45 minutes.
5. Carefully remove chicken to platter, let cool enough to handle, and cut into serving pieces. Arrange on platter and scatter reserved scallion greens over. Serve with Ginger Dipping Sauce.
Ginger Dipping Sauce
If you like it spicy, add a minced hot pepper or hot pepper flakes to taste along with the ginger in step 1.
Makes about 1/2 cup
1 tablespoon peanut or canola oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 2-3 cloves)
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 small scallion, both white and green parts, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon sesame oil, optional
1. Heat oil in small pot over medium heat. When hot, add garlic and let sizzle until just beginning to color. Add ginger and let cook until garlic is golden but not brown. Add scallion, let sizzle a few seconds, turn off heat, and pour into small bowl.
2. Stir soy and oyster sauce into hot oil and then mix in water and sesame oil if using. Serve with Chinese-Style Steamed Chicken, steamed vegetables, or steamed shrimp.