The Stacked Steamer
by Kasma Loha-unchit
See also: Use & Care of your Wok.
Along with the wok, a stacked steamer is an indispensable piece of equipment in a Chinese and Southeast Asian kitchen. It is made up of a pot, two racks with holes for steam to pass through, and a domed lid. The shape of the lid is designed to minimize the dripping of condensed steam onto the foods being cooked.
Stacked steamers are made either of aluminum or stainless steel and are inexpensive when purchased from Asian markets that carry cookware. Much more versatile than bamboo steamers and the collapsible vegetable steaming rack, they can do everything these two can do, plus much more.
In my home, the steamer lives on the stove and is never put away. It is used just about every day to cook a wide variety of foods, from fluffy steamed rice and vegetables to flavored meat dishes and impressive, but easy, steamed whole fish.
Steaming is a healthful way to cook. Foods that are properly steamed retain their nutrition and sweet, natural flavor, requiring little or no oil. To people with limited time to cook, steam-cooking has the added benefit of being easy. Tasty food can be made with little effort as long as the ingredients used are fresh.
I grew up eating a lot of steamed pork and chicken dishes. Check out my easy recipe for Steamed Chicken with Ginger-Garlic Oil. As a child, I love spooning the delightfully sweet and very flavorful juice that steamed out from the chicken onto my rice. I still do and if there is any left, it is saved for soup stock, or for adding to any stir-fried dishes that require liquid. Instead of chicken thighs, breasts may also be steamed, but be careful not to overcook as breast meat can dry out. Try this recipe also with pork chops.
I also grew up eating a lot of steamed eggplant, one of my mother's favorite vegetables and one that is delicious steamed. When I am busy and have little time to cook, I simply steam the eggplant, then flavor it with a simple sesame-flavored soy sauce. (Steamed Eggplant with Sesame-Soy Sauce Recipe.) Because steaming gives eggplant a wonderful tender texture, another favorite way to prepare eggplant is to lightly steam it, then quickly stir-fry in a hot wok with a little oil, garlic, oyster sauce, fish sauce or light soy sauce, slivered chillies and basil.
If you do not own a stacked steamer set and do not wish to invest in one just yet, you can improvise and rig up a simple make-shift steamer with equipment that you may already have in your kitchen. Use a large pot wide enough and deep enough to accommodate the dish that you will use for steaming, preferably with a domed lid. Fill pot with 1 1/2 to 2 inches of water, and use some kind of trivet or an inverted bowl placed on the bottom of the pot for the dish holding the food to be steamed to sit on. Bring water in the pot to a boil, cover and steam as instructed.
A bamboo steamer, which is best for steaming dumplings and buns, will work, too, for the two recipes given here if it is sufficiently large and deep. Do not use on a wok as you may have been advised unless it is an electric non-stick wok. Boiling water in a well-seasoned wok can easily ruin its hard-earned shiny, black patina. Better to balance the bamboo steamer on top of a slightly wider metal pot.
But if you are planning to do a lot of steam cooking, it is well worth every penny to invest in a good-size metal stacked steamer. It may very well earn a permanent place on your stove top.
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