Whole Food Cooking is a column by our Resident Vegetarian-at-Large, Amy Chaplin. Each month, Amy will show us a different way to love fruits and vegetables just a little bit more.
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I am a big fan of food prepared simply — and a bowl of steamed vegetables is my ideal simple meal. It requires minimal prep and can come together quickly at any time of year using the vegetables you have on hand. No need to heat the oven, peel onions or carrots or anything else, or wait for a pot of water to boil. You don’t even need to be good with a knife. And, the best part is that steamed veggies serve as a canvas that you can dress up in limitless ways depending on your mood.
Steaming is the most frequently used method of cooking in my kitchen and for three seasons of the year, I’m reaching for the steamer almost daily. I fill it with a couple of inches of water and place it over a high flame while I raid the fridge for vegetables.
If there’s winter squash on hand, that gets cut up and steamed first while I scrub, rinse and chop carrots, daikon, broccoli, and any dark leafy greens I find. And in the summer, steamed vegetable salads make great use of an abundance of buttery zucchini, sweet corn, tender carrots, peas, green beans, Japanese turnips, and more. Prepared this way, summer bounty tends to be more filling than your usual leafy warm weather salad and leaves you feeling both refreshed and grounded.
When I’m steaming, I don’t think about measuring what I’ve gathered; I just cover the bottom of the basket with my veg, place the lid on, and allow everything to cook. If I’m in a real hurry, I cut the vegetables thin—like in 1/4 to 1/3-inch slices. When cut this way, any firm vegetables such as carrots, daikon, and watermelon radish can cook in about two minutes. I tend to cut squash into no smaller than one-inch chunks as it can easily break when sliced.
When using hardier vegetables, like squash, they steam in the first batch and are usually cooked by the time the rest of the vegetables are prepped — exact time will depend on the density of the squash and the size, of course. Once tender, I remove the squash from the pot by gently tipping them into a wide bowl or platter. Then, I add another layer of firm vegetables to the pot. Once they’re almost cooked, I add broccoli, cooking for another minute or two. Lastly, I toss in any chopped leafy greens. Steaming is so quick that the vegetables done first will stay warm enough while the rest cook.
Again, exact cooking times depend on the size of the vegetables — I just keep testing each variety with the tip of a sharp knife or carefully biting into a piece. If one group cooks before adding the next vegetable, I toss them into the bowl with the squash and keep steaming. With baby greens, Swiss chard, or spinach, I often take the steamer pot off the simmering water and set it aside for the residual heat to do the cooking — this way there is less chance of ruining the delicate leaves by overcooking.
While the batches are cooking, you can start getting out ingredients to add flavor to your meal. No matter what my mood, I always bring olive oil and tamari to the table. Then I reach in the fridge for some kind of sauerkraut, hemp seeds, and my jar of pre-sliced scallions (this is key!). If I have some gomasio or toasted seeds, I’ll add them; and often tahini, as well. I drizzle and sprinkle the bowl of steamed vegetables with a little bit of each of these flavorings and gently toss to combine.
I love eating this as a 100% vegetable meal; however, for something more substantial, you can add a scoop of rice, a poached egg, dollop of hummus, sliced avocado, or all of the above.