Game for a steamy affair?

LIVING IN THE KITCHEN

Game for a steamy affair?

What do famous chefs love to cook for themselves? “Steamed food. It can be absolutely reviving after a tiring day at the master kitchen, supervising everything from poached truffles to kadai paneer,” grins Hari Ponniah of the Chola Sheraton, Chennai.

When it comes to healthy and non-fussy food, steaming wins everyone’s vote. For one, it seals the natural juices and flavours of an ingredient, and ensures that none of its natural goodness is lost. The moist heat cooks the food evenly and there is no fear of scorching. Steamed food is the closest you can get to food in its natural state if you are not eating it raw.    

Steaming a dish offers the real flavours. When you fry food, the first taste that you get is that of the fried exterior. Steaming, on the other hand, takes you directly to its flavourful core. 

Many of us tend to associate steaming with European cuisine, but it is actually a part of Oriental cooking. In India, for instance, we have a great many steamed dishes — from idlis and dhoklas to momos and dumplings. And, it is not limited to vegetarian cooking. In  Bengal, the hilsa is almost always steamed with mustard paste and mustard oil, and large prawns are steamed with grated coconut, a bit of curd, mustard paste and mustard oil. The much-loved paturi, where you wrap a piece of fish in a banana leaf, is a steamed dish.

Most often, non-vegetarian steam cooking is combined  with searing and stir frying.  In the north, meat is always seared over a high flame before it is steamed to seal its  juices, retaining both flavour and nutrition. 

The most famous non vegetarian steam cuisine is the ‘dum’ style of cooking,  originally enjoyed by the Nawabs of Awadh, rulers of the Northern Provinces of India  during the 18th century.

The dishes are cooked in traditional degs or handis, which are sealed with atta or kneaded dough to trap the steam. The handi is then placed over glowing coals and the dish is left to simmer in its own juices until tender and delicious. The resultant richness of flavours and taste is incomparable and memorable.

Of course, it goes without saying that you need a bit of experience to know when the food is done. There’s nothing quite as bad as vegetable or fish that’s been steamed for too long.

But the great thing is that you can steam food without an electric or a gas steamer. All that you have to do is put the ingredients with the right mix on a steel plate, cover it with a tight lid and place it on top of a pan with boiling water. Remember to place a weight on the lid to keep it sealed.

 These days, of course, you get steamers of all kinds,  including some electric ones where you can regulate the temperature.

Here are some tips on steam cooking:

*Flavour can be incorporated into steamed foods by adding herbs, spices, aromatic vegetables, wine, juice, etc to the  steaming liquid. Or, you could use any of this as a marinade before steam cooking.

*Steam cooking does not call for fancy equipment. One good option is a collapsible steamer basket (available at most supermarkets) or a metal rack set into a large pot, wok or skillet.

*An alternative is to create a platform for the food with a pair of chopsticks and small, glazed ceramic or glass serving bowls placed upside down. Place the food in a heat-proof dish and set it on top.

*Whatever your equipment, a tight seal is important. Choose a pan with a tight-fitting lid, or cover the pan with foil and press the foil tightly around the edges.

*The steaming  liquid must be at least 1 inch deep and should not touch the bottom of the steamer basket or rack.

*Too much water results in the food being boiled instead of steamed; too little water and you risk evaporation and burned pans.

*Bring the liquid to a boil over high heat before adding the food. Then adjust the heat so the water simmers briskly. Begin timing at this point.

*Keep a pot of boiling water on the stove to replenish the  steaming  liquid if required. A few marbles placed at the bottom of the steamer will make a noise until the water is gone; silence means it’s time to add more water.

*If you open the lid of the steamer briefly to check the cooking progress, add a minute to the total steaming time.

*Steam is hotter than boiling water, so take care not to burn yourself. Use oven mitts when putting in or removing food from the steamer or lifting the lid. Always tip the lid away from you and let some of the steam escape before removing the lid entirely.

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