Hot and Steamy: This cooking method is fast, flavorful and good for your heart

Why give a toot-toot to steaming? For starters, steamed food retains more vitamins and minerals while cooking. It’s also a low-cal way of eating that promotes thinness, what the French would call cuisine minceur. (Cuisine vapeur, n’est pas?) But besides the health benefits, steaming results in food that is brighter, with more natural flavor and texture than when prepared using some other cooking methods. All that – and it’s fast.

Steaming essentially entails suspending food over a heated liquid so that the steam produced from the heat builds up inside the steamer and cooks the food. “In a way, it’s like a microwave without a microwave,” said Eric Brenner, owner and executive chef at Moxy Contemporary Bistro in the Central West End. “But a microwave can dry it out; a steamer makes it moist.”

To many of us, steaming evokes images of cheerful green and orange bundles of asparagus and carrots. “Steaming is a great way to work with vegetables,” Brenner said. “You maintain more integrity of the vegetable.” Compared with what Brenner termed the “old-school way” of blanching and shocking, steaming results in a more exact, consistent result. But steaming is hardly restricted to veggies. It’s a superversatile cooking method that works well on meat, poultry, fish and within a variety of cuisines.

The Chinese have been steaming food for thousands of years. Early steamers were made of stoneware; later, thin cypress strips were used. Today, round, woven bamboo baskets stacked over a boiling pot or wok are typical Asian steaming tools (apart from the electric rice steamer, which has become a standard appliance in many Western households too). Many favorite Chinese dishes are steamed or incorporate steaming with another method, such as frying.

Jiaozi, dumplings made from meat, seafood or vegetarian ingredients that are wrapped in translucent rice-flour or wheat-flour skins, are standard dim sum fare. Lu Lu Seafood in University City serves steamed shrimp dumplings (har gow) as well as shrimp-pork (shumai) and seafood versions. Pot stickers, another Chinese steamed specialty, are readily recognizable to the American palate. These meat-and-cabbage-filled dumplings are steamed then pan-fried, and served with shoyu dipping sauce. Lesser-known savory turnip pudding and red-speckled taro pudding are more like cakes. The root is mashed, steamed in a mold, then sliced and pan-fried. Fluffy steamed meat or vegetable-filled buns called bau are so popular that versions like the Cantonese barbecued-pork-filled cha siu bau are available in many grocery store freezer sections. “Most American people like it,” said Jenny Lu, ozwner of Lu Lu Seafood. “They are very popular at our restaurant.”

Occidental cuisines can handle steaming equally as well as Asian ones. Brenner recalled this approach to Southern European fare when he worked at Truffles in Ladue, where they steamed baby vegetables, lobster, even pork ribs “because there was no smoker. We steamed it to get it really soft and saved the liquid to make a sauce. It was supertender.” During a stint as banquet chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton, Brenner served steamed seafood mousse and also galantine, a fillet of chicken, duck or pheasant that is flattened or butterfly-cut, stuffed and rolled sausage-style. Traditionally, the dish is poached rather than steamed.

The fish on the spa menu at Harvest Restaurant in Richmond Heights boasts a twist on the French en papillote (literally, “in parchment”). Fish is wrapped in banana leaves with a starch, vegetable and court bouillon, the classic French flavored-water bath used for poaching, then steamed in a double boiler. (See Harvest’s recipe for Banana Leaf-Wrapped Alaskan Sablefish.) “We’ve done everything – from salmon to halibut to grouper,” stated chef and proprietor Steve Gontram. “Fish is pretty versatile.”

Harvest’s use of court bouillon is one of multiple ways to add flavorings to steamed food. Other flavor-enhancing applications are to marinate the food before steaming, to add herbs and spices pre- or post-steam, or to make sauces and gravies out of the liquid that collects in the drip pan during cooking. To keep it heart-healthy, though, don’t use the cooking liquid if it contains fat that’s dripped off steamed meat and poultry.

Few cooking processes are as economical as steaming. Only one cooking pot is used, resulting in faster setup, cooking time and cleanup. A tiered bamboo, metal or electric steamer, or a Moroccan couscousière, enables an entire meal to be prepared from the same heat source. In general, the food requiring the most cooking is placed on the lowest tier, the best place for meat, fish and poultry so that their juices and fats do not drip onto foods below. In addition, the flavorful liquid that collects in the drip pan from steaming vegetables is liquid gold for soups or grains.

When it comes to steamed desserts, Asian cuisines take the cake. The soft steamed sponge cake called ma lai gao made with flour, egg, sugar and milk is a traditional Chinese Lunar New Year dessert. Lu said that the cake used to be popular in the 1970s but that Americans have guilted themselves out of eating it these days for fear of expanding their waistlines. Lu Lu does, however, serve up sweet egg-custard-filled buns (nai wong bau). “They are very popular in the restaurant. A lot of people eat them at New Year.”

Steamed custards and puddings are unquestionably doable desserts for the home cook. Multiple ramekins or custard cups make pretty single-portion presentations and can fit on one steamer tray; a 1½-quart or larger mold or bowl works well for a family-sized offering. Steamed fruit is a light, satisfying end to a meal, and is both flavorful and eye-catching. How about pears steamed in a syrupy Port sauce seasoned with sugar, cinnamon and orange zest? Or steam some dried apricots, prunes and mango, and serve with an intense sauce of orange liqueur spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. For a little more decadence, mix the sauce with cream cheese, yogurt and honey.

From start to finish, steaming is so simple that chefs can sometimes forget that there’s something going on in the pot. An oven mitt is a must, and the steamer lid should to be tipped away when opened, or it will take all the steam out of the fun, as happened to Brenner who burned his hand while reaching into the steamer at St. Louis Country Club. “It was my first day of work. I was trying to do so well and I was completely destroying myself!”