I was very young when I announced (at the dinner table, no less) my preference for the crisp, spice-soaked broccoli from the local Chinese restaurant over the plain, steamed florets my mother often prepared. “Well, then, learn to make them yourself,” my mother sagely responded.
After playing around with broccoli and every variable of heat, I began to appreciate both my mom’s and the restaurant’s techniques. The crisp sear of a hot wok provides intense flavor, but the vegetable might shrivel or burn before it cooks all the way through. The measured timing of steaming allows for reliable doneness and texture, but doesn’t contribute the intense flavors of sautéing. When the two techniques are combined—sautéing the vegetables first and then steaming them in a bit of water—the results are quick, colorful vegetable side dishes, perfectly cooked and flavorful, too. This technique works with many different vegetables and takes just as well to French and Italian seasonings as it does to Asian ones.
In these stir-fries, use large pieces of aromatics, like whole garlic cloves and thick, coin-shaped slices of shallots and ginger. They add flavor to the sauté without any worry of burning. The addition of water for steaming washes their flavor into the rest of the stir-fry and softens them. You can discard the garlic and ginger at the end of cooking, if you like. The shallots break up into tasty thin brown rings.
Cut the vegetables uniformly and be sure the pan is hot. Follow the Chinese style of good vegetable preparation by cutting your vegetables into pieces of the same size so they’ll cook evenly. Also, do all your prep work before you heat the pan. The cooking moves quickly, and it helps to have all your ingredients at the ready.
A sturdy, hot pan helps the vegetables caramelize. Heavy cast-iron or stainless-steel skillets sear vegetables efficiently, though a wok also works well. Be sure to turn on your exhaust fan, as the high heat in these recipes produces some smoke.
Two easy steps to perfectly cooked vegetables
Sear for flavor. Use a heavy skillet and be sure it's very hot. The high heat carmelizes the vegetables, giving them a sweet, intense flavor.
Steam for texture. Add 1/4 cup water to the seared vegetables and cover the pan. The liquid deglazes the browned bits in the pan and steams the vegetables until they’re slightly softened but still crisp.
This sear-and-steam technique works well with most firm, sturdy vegetables, as long as you adjust the cooking times for each. Sugar snap and snow peas pair nicely with Asian flavors. Sauté them with garlic and ginger, steam for a couple of minutes, and then drizzle with soy sauce and sesame oil. Although you have to be careful not to overcook zucchini and summer squash, they make a great southwestern sear-and-steam dish, seared with fresh corn kernels and finely diced peppers, steamed for just a minute, and then sprinkled with chili powder. Try sear-and-steam cauliflower with curry powder and butter or carrots with brown sugar and shallots.