I was raised in a very English family – a fact that means parts of my education in cooking was backwards. Contrary to the stereotypes, traditional English cooking does have high points, including cheeses, desserts, and Yorkshire pudding, but those points do not include vegetables. For the most part, vegetables are an after-thought, cheap items designed to make the expensive meat go further. Growing up with this attitude, I have had to learn about cooking vegetables piecemeal and on my own.
As times changed and I left home, I did learn a few things. I learned that salads can consist of more than lettuce, and need not contain it all. I learned that vegetables in general taste better if you don’t boil them until the color is drained from them, and that boiling corn on the cob in particular is an Abomination. I learned that casseroles and stir fry were often more interesting possibilities.
Yet throughout this re-education, until a few months ago, boiling remained the default option for vegetables, unless I was following a specific recipe. Oh, I’d add spices and sauces, but that didn’t change the fact that when I was rushed or tired, I’d leave little of the original taste of whatever vegetables were unfortunate to fall beneath my paring knife.
This default was particularly unfortunate for rice, condemning me either to a soggy mound on my plate or else a burned pot unless I watched and stirred it nervously and turned off the heat at exactly the correct second.
A few months ago, desperation drove me to pour rice into a strainer balanced over a pot of water and covered with a pot. The cooking was so even and the taste so much greater than when I boiled the rice that I tried the same method with various vegetables. I was equally pleased with the results.
I had heard distantly of steam cooking, but vaguely assumed it involved expensive appliances and was impractical for anyone cooking for one. However, an Internet search soon showed that steam cookers were available for well under a hundred dollars. In fact, many models were fifty dollars or less. When no one took up my pointed suggestions for a present, I returned home on Christmas Day and promptly ordered the model of my choice.
Yesterday, it arrived, and I broke off writing long enough to unpack it and check that it worked. As a sometime student of usability, I was intrigued by its egg-shaped base and its tiered shelves, each with a perforated lid complete with indentations for holding eggs and a rice tray. Like a growing number of kitchen appliances these days, the cooker was a thing of elegance, form and function matching perfectly. The only design flaw is that the reservoir for adding water is too small, which prolongs what should be a straightforward task.
Naturally, I had to try my new toy as soon as possible. For dinner that night, I began with a wad of chicken breast. I half-expected that steaming would leave the meat pink, but instead it browned lightly and evenly in twenty minutes, shredding easily in my fingers.
Another twenty minutes did for the vegetables and arborio rice needed for risotto. Mixed with the shredded chicken and covered with tomato sauce and a few spoonfuls of pesto sauce, the result was the most delicious risotto I had managed in seven years of preparing the dish, full of flavor and textures that boiling would have done its best to remove.
Had I cooked both meat and rice together using two shelves, I could have assembled a complete meal in twenty minutes, all without turning on the oven or any burners. Just as importantly, washing the pieces was no more than a matter of running a soapy dish towel over all the surfaces.
That was enough for me. I still have plenty of experiments to try, including cooking fish and adding spices to the water. I can see, too, that coordinating the various parts of dinner and positioning them on the shelves will take some practices. But so far as I’m concerned, steaming is now my preferred cooking method for most vegetables. I’ve entered the Age of Steam, and there’s no going back.