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Cooking with steam for high-flavor food Good and good for you: Moist heat retains nutrients without adding fat and brings out the subtleties in vegetables, meats, even desserts


Steaming, a no-fuss stovetop technique, goes beyond broccoli to embrace such voluptuous dishes as minted chicken with zucchini and chocolate custard.

You'll swoon over the results.

"With steaming, the true flavor of food gets exposed," says Stephanie Lyness, who translated "Cuisine a la Vapeur, The Art of Cooking With Steam" by Jacques Maniere (William Morrow & Co., $25). "What turned me on [about steaming] was the taste."

Health-conscious cooks cite another benefit: Steaming retains nutrients and keeps foods succulent without adding fat.

Vegetables, fish, meat and poultry all benefit from steaming. Ms. Lyness encloses skinless, boneless chicken breast halves in foil packets, adding herbs and a tablespoon of wine to each before steaming. This method, also suitable for fish fillets, produces an instant low-fat sauce.

Steaming is remarkably simple. Just set the food on a rack and cook it over simmering water in a covered pot. Leave at least one inch between the food and the sides of the pan for circulation.

Dome-lidded roasting pans make excellent steamers. Collapsible steamer baskets, pasta cookers and fish poachers also steam foods well.

A steamer even makes custard a breeze. So often, monitoring baked custards means ducking in and out of a hot oven. By contrast, steaming turns out perfect custards with less fuss and less heat.

Steaming tips

* If you open the steamer while the food is cooking, raise the heat to bring the water back to a simmer, then lower the heat again and continue timing.

* Steam causes bad burns. Always open the lid away from you and let some steam dissipate before looking into the steamer or putting your hands in it.

* Be sure the lid or aluminum foil cover fits tightly and doesn't touch the food.

* Some collapsible steamers feature a detachable middle handle; removing it allows you to steam larger pieces of food, such as chicken breasts or fish.

* Use stackable steamers to steam two dishes simultaneously. The bottom compartment steams foods more quickly than the top.

* Foods take 1 1/2 times longer to cook in a bamboo steamer set over a wok than in a metal steamer.

* Steam all whole fish weighing from 1 1/2 to 5 pounds for 10 minutes per inch of thickness (8 or 9 minutes for lean white-fleshed fish weighing less than 1 1/2 pounds). Set the lid ajar during the final quarter of steaming. Fish is done when a thermometer inserted into thickest part reads 140 degrees.

Steamer polenta

Makes 4 servings

1 cup coarse cornmeal

2 cups cold water

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan or to taste

Combine cornmeal, cold water and salt in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Pour into a large heat-proof bowl that will fit into the steamer basket. Cover bowl with foil and place on steamer rack. When steamer water boils, steam for 45 to 50 minutes. The cornmeal will have absorbed all the water and will be soft and creamy. (Polenta can be kept hot over steaming water for an hour before serving.) Stir in butter and Parmesan and serve hot.

243 calories per serving; 11 grams fat; 28 milligrams cholesterol; 857 milligrams sodium; 40 percent calories from fat

Mint-steamed chicken breasts with zucchini

Makes 4 servings

1 large bunch of fresh mint sprigs (or other herb)

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

salt and freshly ground pepper

3 medium zucchini, cut into 1/4 -inch rounds

3 tablespoons nonfat sour cream, or yogurt mixed with 1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon

1 teaspoon chopped parsley

Lay an even bed of fresh mint sprigs on top of a wire rack or steamer basket. Sprinkle the breast halves with salt and pepper and put them in a single layer atop the herbs. Place over simmering water, cover, and steam for about 14 minutes (8 to 10 minutes for smaller breasts).

While the breasts are steaming, steam the zucchini in another steamer for 9 to 10 minutes. Put the sour cream or yogurt in a skillet and heat it briefly. Add the zucchini and seasonings; toss to coat. Serve the chicken with the zucchini.

210 calories per serving; 4 grams fat; 90 milligrams cholesterol; 296 milligrams sodium; 17 percent calories from fat

Chocolate custard

Makes 4 servings

2 cups whole milk

1/4 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch processed, sifted (divided use)

2/3 cup sugar

4 large eggs

Combine the milk, 1/4 cup of the unsweetened cocoa and sugar in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, combine the eggs and remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons cocoa in a medium heat-proof bowl and lightly beat with a whisk. Gradually whisk the milk mixture into the egg mixture, pouring slowly at first in a thin stream, and then more rapidly. Place the custard mixture into a 1 1/2 -quart souffle dish, or divide among 4 (6- to 8-ounce) ramekins or Pyrex cups. Cover containers with aluminum foil, pressing the foil around the rim to seal.

Put the containers on the steamer rack, place over simmering water, cover and steam until custard is just set but jiggles in the middle when shaken, about 18 minutes for the souffle dish or 12 minutes for the small molds. Remove custard from steamer and let cool. Refrigerate until cold.

Variation: Replace the 1/4 cup of cocoa with 2 tablespoons instant espresso powder for mocha custard.

307 calories per serving; 10 grams fat; 251 milligrams cholesterol; 171 milligrams sodium; 30 percent calories from fat

Steamed salmon

Makes 4 servings

1 large bunch of parsley

2 salmon steaks, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches thick

lemon wedges

salt and pepper

Make a thick bed of parsley on the steamer rack. Put the steaks in a single layer on the parsley. Place the steamer rack over simmering water, cover and steam 8 to 9 minutes for medium salmon steaks (1 minute longer for well done). Serve with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.

311 calories per serving; 14 grams fat; 121 milligrams cholesterol; 362 milligrams sodium; 42 percent calories from fat

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