Steaming vegetables is an underutilized cooking technique in my kitchen. After my last trip to Japan, I promised to fix it. This simple, straightforward method of cooking is one of the reasons I love eating in Japan. I mean, let's face it, I probably like steamed vegetables more than most, but I enjoy them exponentially more. Somehow, a lot of the things I love about traveling there are summarized in this simple preparation.
I was often given a sample of seasonal produce as part of a combined lunch. The vegetables arrived beautifully arranged in the bamboo basket in which they were steamed. I worked my way through a rainbow of vibrant, tender potatoes, pumpkin, mushrooms, broccoli raven and the like, sometimes adding a pinch of savory shichimi togarashi, but mostly an occasional toss of a few grains of salt was all. Each meal was a living, satisfying reminder of how good vegetables can be when simply prepared with care and intent. Your natural flavors come through directly and perfectly.
Break out the steamer!
After this past trip, my inexpensive three-stage bamboo steamer was immediately dusted and rotated when I got home. What always surprises me is the speed with which even the heartiest pieces of root vegetables or pumpkin become tender – ten minutes, often less.
Choosing a steamer
Bamboo steamers are easy to come by and relatively inexpensive. Go this route if you are not sure how often you will be using your vaper. The only downside is that they take up a lot of storage space, not much more than a large pot, but still. These steamers come in a variety of diameters and consist of interlocking shells that are designed to be stacked on top of each other. Placed over boiling water, the steam rises from the water through the bowls and cooks the food. It's a simple premise that works amazingly well. I use three trays, but you can safely go up or down a level.
I eventually graduated from a ceramic steamer and also took this Mushi hub, Donabe steamer. Both are nice because you can make a broth or curry in the base and then steam the above ingredients at the same time. Each of the steamer makes a nice jump from cooking to the table. If you want to go beyond steaming vegetables, you can also steam everything from dumplings and tofu to eggs, tamales, and certain types of rice.
Some tips for steaming vegetables:
- While steaming with water is the most common, I've also used miso broth, vegetable broth, vegetable dashi, or tea instead of water. Each gives the vegetable a different smell and taste. I use water more than once.
- Arrange your slowest cooking vegetables in the bottom basket and work as quickly as possible. Another time saver is to start the densest and slowest cooking vegetables in the lower compartment while preparing the faster cooking vegetables for the middle and upper basket. Put the lid on the basket that is just above.
- Some people line their steamers with cabbage leaves or parchment. I don't bother putting the vegetables straight on the steamer instead. I like how it seems to be circulating the steam. A quick peeling with hot water and the rough side of a sponge will make cleaning easier.
- If you use the bamboo steamer, you can use a wok (the steamer sits above the boiling water) or a wide pan (I put the steamer directly in a shallow pan of boiling water) … A wok is more traditional and is gentle on your steamer, but both techniques work well.
So less of a recipe than a reminder of how good the most basic of preparations can be. A couple of years after I first posted this, I took another deep dive into using your underutilized steamer. Have fun! -H