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How-To

Vegetables, Perfectly Steamed & Deliciously Sauced

Five quick sauces dress up everything from baby artichokes to sugar snap peas

Fine Cooking Issue 78
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Mention “steamed vegetables” and the first thing that pops into many people’s minds is bland, boring diet food. I couldn’t disagree more. Simple, yes. But boring? Definitely not. Steaming, one of the speediest cooking methods, is an excellent way to reveal the pure flavor of just about any vegetable. Cooked properly, steamed vegetables can stand on their own, but to really make them sing, I like to drizzle on a quick, complementary sauce.

As you’ll see in the sauces featured below, I rely on spices and acidic ingredients like lemon juice and vinegar for brightness and often add rich ingredients like cream, cheese, bacon, and tasty oils to give the vegetables a fuller flavor. The sauces can be made an hour or so ahead, and reheated if necessary before drizzling on the steamed vegetables—with results that are anything but bland. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind as you steam:

Don’t overload the steamer. Arrange the vegetables in a loose, shallow layer so the steam can cook them evenly.

Salt early. Sprinkling kosher salt on the vegetables right after they go into the steamer jump-starts the process of flavor release. You can salt later, too, but adding a little salt early on is a good practice.

Pay attention. The fatal flaw of many steamed vegetable dishes is improper doneness. They’re too soft or too crisp, whereas ideally they should be neither mushy nor crunchy but perfectly tender. Hitting that sweet spot is easier said than done, I know, but it’s only a matter of attention and timing. So don’t wander far when the vegetables are in the steamer—the cooking happens quickly. To test for doneness, bite into a piece that you’ve quickly run under cold water (so you don’t burn your tongue). Check the vegetables early so you don’t miss their moment of perfection.

All the vegetables fit to steam

Here are some guidelines on preparing vegetables for steaming, and approximate steaming times.

  • Baby artichokes: Trim as demonstrated in these photos; steam 5 to 6 minutes
  • Asparagus: Trim tough ends; steam 4 to 6 minutes.
  • Carrots: Peel and slice into 1/2-inch-thick rounds; steam 6 to 8 minutes.
  • Cauliflower: Core and cut into 1-inch florets; steam 4 to 5 minutes.
  • Broccoli crowns: Cut tops into 1-inch florets, slice stems 1/4 inch thick; steam 3 to 4 minutes.
  • Broccolini: Trim the ends; steam 5 to 6 minutes.
  • Brussels sprouts: Trim bottom and halve through the base; steam 5 to 6 minutes.
  • Green beans: Trim stem ends; steam 3 to 5 minutes.
  • Baby or fingerling potatoes: Scrub and quarter (halve fingerlings lengthwise), steam 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Sugar snap peas: Rinse and remove stem end and string; steam 5 to 6 minutes.

How to steam vegetables

Trim and cut your vegetable as directed in the chart above. Meanwhile, bring an inch or so of water to a boil over high heat in a pot fit with a steamer insert
Put the vegetables in the steamer, sprinkle with kosher salt, cover tightly, and steam until just tender. The vegetables should be neither crisp nor soft but exactly in between. Bite into a piece to check.

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