Which vegetables to steam? Where to find their steaming times?
Previous Story: Aloo Jira - Cumin Spiced Potatoes
Hosh was in the kitchen when Isha came home from shopping.
She was pleased to see that he had already diced up some vegetables. He was now cutting up broccoli.
“A great and simple way to cook vegetables when you are on the run,” she winked at him, “or on a budget, is to steam them. You only need to do it for a few minutes and they are good to eat.”
“Steaming has very low water contact. It uses heat from the boiling water vapor to cook the ingredients."
"This leaves the veges brightly colored, crunchy and tasting great, and minimizes loss of water-soluble vitamins in them.”
“So steaming is an easy and healthy way to cook vegetables like potatoes, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, beans, beets, and radishes etc.”
“Cooking changes the color, texture, taste and nutritional content of vegetables. It is the combination of heat and time that makes them softer and easier to eat and digest.”
“But over cooking vegetables makes them soft and mushy. It also changes their flavor because components of fresh, green flavor are lost and bitter flavors become more dominant.”
“How would I know when I’ve overcooked them Ma?” asked Hosh.
“Oh you would know!” she assured him. “It’s a sad thing to watch, really. You put the broccoli florets in a pan and begin to cook them. It doesn’t take them long to go from pale green to the most beautiful, verdant, bright green you have ever seen.”
“Then, as you keep cooking them, the florets fade before your eyes, turning limp and gray. You serve them out and wonder why they are mushy, sad and tasteless. That’s because you’ve overcooked them.”
“Rhea Parsons recommends pureeing overcooked vegetables and turning them into soup or refrigerating them for tomorrow’s salad. So it’s not the end of the world if you have overcooked them.”
“How do I steam them, Ma?” asked Hosh.
“Use a wok and bamboo steamer,” replied Isha, “an electric steamer or even a steam insert in a pan to steam vegetables. Steaming times begin when the water boils and creates steam.”
“Add vegetables to the steamer only after the water starts boiling in it. Most leafy veges will steam in 1-2 minutes, peas and greens in 2-3 minutes but potatoes and carrots might need upto 10 minutes.”
“Can I steam them in a microwave?” asked Hosh.
“Yea,” said Isha. “But there's not much consistent scientific information on how microwaving impacts on vegetable nutrients. When microwaving, I'd keep the amount of water and time used minimal. Remember that some vegetables require no water except for the droplets that cling to them when rinsed.”
“Rapid cooking and very low water contact is the secret to creating healthier, tastier, brightly colored, crunchy veges. Violating either of those two rules will make them mushy and limp, and cause loss of nutrients.”
“Which vegetables can I steam Ma?” asked Hosh. “Can I steam them all? Do I need different recipes for steaming different vegetables?”
“Most vegetables can be cooked by steaming them in the same way,” she said, “although their cooking times can vary a lot. There is a steaming time chart at healwithfood.org that you can use for steaming vegetables safely, but use it only as a general guide.”
“The actual times can differ a lot from this guide due to personal tastes (some people like their veggies harder and crispier) or due to differences in the water content of foods. Generally, fresher foods cook faster.”
“Also, the preparation method and size can affect how long it takes to steam a vegetable. For example, whole vegetables take longer to cook than diced or sliced vegetables.”
“A recent New Zealand-Australian research tested old wives’ tales though, about how much time is required for different veges, and recommended a ’3 minute max’ cooking guideline for steaming and stir-frying vegetables to optimize their taste and nutrition.”
“What about frozen veges, Ma?” asked Hosh. “Should I be steaming them direct or thawing them first?”
“Do not thaw frozen veges before cooking,” warned Isha, “as this can reduce many vitamins dramatically. Vegetables are frozen by blanching them first, which is effectively a cooking step.”
“So some loss of nutrients is bound to happen with frozen stuff, especially with heat sensitive and water-soluble compounds. Still, steam blanching is better than methods that involve immersing vegetables in water.”
“What’s blanching?” asked Hosh. “How do you do that?”
“Blanching prepares vegetables for freezing,” she answered. “Blanching time begins when veges are dropped in a large pot of boiling water. You might have seen some chefs on TV plunge vegetables immediately into ice water after steaming, then drain and pat dry with paper towels before freezing.”
“Are canned vegetables better to use than frozen ones then?” asked Hosh.
“Canning is generally worse than freezing," Isha laughed, as she gave him more tips, "especially for water soluble nutrients because they leach into the canning liquid. Fresh is generally best, especially if you can buy it or grow it.”
“For vegetables in season, it can also be your cheapest and healthiest option.”
“But wouldn’t steamed vegetables taste bland, Ma,” asked Hosh, “without your secret spices?”
“Nah!” she laughed. “Not if you know how to add flavor to your steamed vegetables without using salt or dairy products.”
“How Ma?” Hosh asked earnestly. “Teach me.”
“Just get to know your veges well,” she laughed again, “and you will come to know them well when you keep working with them.”
“You will learn, for example, that steamed cauliflower is amazing with lemon or lime juice, while fennel is tasty when served with extra virgin olive oil and basil.”
“Shelled peas, which can be put into the steamer either fresh or frozen, get a nice kick from lemon juice and fresh herbs like mint.”
“Steaming allows you to really taste vegetables closest to how nature intended. But even steaming is not for all veges.”
“You can steam bell peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, tomatillos, and garlic for example, but other cooking methods, like roasting might be better suited to retain their texture or bring out their flavor.”
“How do you roast them?” asked Hosh.
“Enough for today, young man,” she said. “Let’s eat. I’m hungry.”
Next Story: Green or Red Chili Paste