BIG BAMBOO AND A BOILING POT OF WATER:
PURE AND CLEAN WE ARE COOKING WITH STEAM
Steam is a beautiful thing, be it in nature with Yellowstone National Park or the deep sea steam volcanoes; for automobiles and old locomotive engines; and then in the kitchen on the stove or as a steam table. In the case of cooking, steam is the vaporized water from boiling water. The water can be seasoned with aromatic herbs or just plain water, either way the cooking takes place by the heated water molecules forced up through the lidded bamboo or metal basket. There are also steam ovens and steam/radiant heat combo ovens. If you have ever had a steam burn you know that this is one hot source of heat. Steam cooks, and it cooks fast. Today we are cooking in bamboo steamers. Steam cooking is mostly associated with rice, couscous, dim sum dishes and Pan Asian cooking in particular. All regions of the world have dishes cooked with steam. The best for me though are those of Southeast Asia and Filipino cooking.
We will cook the classic Thai dish called haw mok. Haw mok is pompano, perch or a jack fish ground with red curry and coconut, wrapped in banana leaf and steamed. An array of vegetables and tofu steamed with basil and leeks. Chicken breast with mint, garlic and apples, steamed with couscous. We are cooking from the heartlands of Thailand, Japan and the Near East. This is comfort food at its finest. These dishes are easy, healthy, rich and delicious. OK, the haw mok has a few steps but it is very rewarding and joyous dining. Steam is one of the oldest cooking methods dating back to hot stones and water by thermal springs. But it is difficult to date, which came first fire or hot rock cooking. Cooks, we manipulate heat for hot cooking, and acids to alkaline in cold cooking. This is what we have always done, manipulate the structure of raw foods into an end result that maintains life and gives us pleasure. Live to eat.
First the nature stuff: steam is when water passes 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Steam does not bounce the food around or shake it or agitate it. Steam envelops and sinks into the food and this means that no nutrients are lost because the steam seals in the food. Since the food is not shaken around it does not break apart, and so in that it is very intense steam is also gentle. Steaming is a very fast way to cook with the foods being ready in 12 to 15 minutes. One of my Western style favorite ways of steam cooking is En papillote, “in paper”. This way of cooking fish is done by lining baking paper with oil and wine and placing the fish and vegetables in the middle and rolling it into a tightly closed semi circle. Bake it at 450~ for 15 minutes. Carefully cut open the paper so that the steam does not burn you, and slide the fish out onto a plate. Always be careful when cooking with steam. It is very easy to burn yourself. Use gloves or tongs.
Steam cooking basics: cut all the ingredients to roughly the same size so that they cook in the same amount of time. Do not let the food touch the water. Leave a bit of space between the ingredients so that the steam circulates. Gradually add water to the pot as it boils away so that you maintain balanced heat.
When using a two layer steamer have the meat/protein in the bottom tier since it takes longer to cook that vegetables or couscous, and so that the meat does not drip down onto the vegetables hence maintaining the integrity of flavors inherent to meats/proteins and vegetables. Top layer takes longer to cook so allow extra time. Do not take the lid off of the top before the foods have cooked because that releases the steam heat, which means that the continuous cooking cycle is broken and the food will take longer to cook. Marinade your seafood or fowl before steaming to add extra flavor into the protein. As an example of nutrition, steam removes 40% of vitamin C whereas boiling/poaching cooking removes 70%. That’s the nutrition part, now to the fun part, the cooking!
I have a big cone shaped hat bamboo steamer and stainless “vase” for steaming Thai sticky rice; two, two tiered medium bamboo; one, small single layer bamboo and metal pans and racks for steaming. Steam cooking really is hard to match when it comes to nutritious, fast, colorful, clean cooking.
Methods of cooking are steam, blanch, boil, broil, roast, braise, sear, sauté, wok stir fry, deep fry, pan fry, grill, smoke, cold smoke, denaturing and curing. And each of these methods has their own history and legend. I find it to be very fun to research, study and apply each method. They are all good. They all produce great flavors and textures.
All of the following recipes take 15 minutes except for the rice and that is 30 minutes. Bring the water to a boil and then turn it down to medium high heat, not boiling, just under at about 190 degrees Fahrenheit, steaming. Do not let the water boil up into the basket or it will just boil, and that is another thing altogether. Do not let the water boil away and ruin your stainless cookware. Keep it covered the whole time. Let the food rest in the covered basket for five minutes before serving.
First and foremost cook the rice. Talk does not cook rice. Heat cooks rice. Thai sticky rice is derived from a particular kind of glutinous rice. Rice cakes are made from glutinous rice. You can use any kind of bamboo steamer basket for sticky rice. But we are staying with the history here so use the cone shaped basket.
Soak 1 cup of sticky rice in water for 2 hours. Strain the water off of the rice. Bring the water in the vase to a boil and put the basket over it and then cover the basket with a metal lid. Turn the heat to medium high and cook for 30 minutes. Rice. You have now cooked sticky rice. This is a side dish or can be made into cake shapes and grilled or baked, they are good cold as well.
This is a dish that brought me to near tears one foggy July night in San Francisco. It was at the Thai Café on Geary Boulevard. Haw mok is made from pulverized pompano, pomfrit, trevally jack, ono/wahoo or cobia. It is blended into a slight paste with red curry and then made into a fish shape, folded into a banana leaf and then steamed. Banana leaves can be purchased at any Latin Mercado in the frozen section. Some recipes for haw mok call for kaffir lime leaves, and if you have access to these wonderfully aromatic leaves then include them in the recipe. Also, some will fold the banana leaf into a cup for easy eating, and you can do this, but for the first attempt at this classic World dish follow the recipe here.
Banana leaves can be found in international farmer’s markets where Latin and Pan Asian produce is sold. Now, Thailand/Siam was and is an international marketplace. Thailand is where several different worlds of Asia and Europe intersect by geography and by trade routes. Thai food is World food. All to often no two recipes are the same and it is hard to find that perfect pad thai or sticky rice, and the reason is because each Thai chef and Mother! has a different approach to the dish depending on the season, the weather, their mood, and this is because the cuisine of Thailand is organic and ever changing. Thai cuisine is complex, there are techniques that require a lot of concentration and care, and it shows. The complexity of this World cuisine, Thai cuisine, is a very beautiful thing.
Recipes are for two people
RED CURRY PASTE
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon roasted red pepper
1/2 teaspoon toasted Sichuan peppercorns, crushed
½ teaspoon toasted coriander
1 teaspoon ginger, grated
4 tablespoons thick coconut milk
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped, stems and leaves
1 teaspoon Three Crabs fish sauce (or ½ teaspoon anchovy paste)
1 teaspoon peanut oil
Combine ingredients and mash into a paste in a food processor or mortar and pestle. Heat a wok or fry pan on high heat with the peanut oil. Add the paste and cook for three minutes, stirring often. Remove from heat and let stand at room temperature.
16 ounces fish fillet, dice
1 egg white
½ teaspoon pink sea salt
1/3 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon unrefined cane sugar
Combine ingredients in food processor. Pulse for 10 seconds and let rest for 5 seconds. Do this five times. The fish should be fluffy and smooth. IF not then continue the process until it is smooth.
Spread plastic wrap onto a flat surface and mix the curry paste and fish paste together the way you would fold biscuit dough. Shape into football or fish shape.
Warm the banana leaf in a 200 degree oven so that it is just a bit soft, about 4 minutes. Take it out of the oven and lay out on a smooth surface. Slice two thin string sized strips from end to end, about 32 inches long. Cut two 10 X 10 X 10 inch triangles. Put one fish patty in the middle of each banana leaf. Fold over into another triangle. Tie each triangle up with your “strings”.
Place your fish on the bottom part of the steamer basket with at least one inch of space between the banana fish packets. Cover with the bamboo lid. Boil the water. Turn down to medium high and add a little more water to replace what steams away as it cooks. Steam for 20 minutes. Do not touch. Do not move the lid.
After 20 minutes remove the fish packs from the steamer baskets and set on serving trays. Sides of sticky rice and pickled vegetables is perfect with haw mok, Cut the banana leaf open and slide the fish off the leaf and onto the plate.
Haw mok can be made ahead of time and then steamed when you are ready to eat.
TOFU WITH VEGETABLES AND LEEKS
Tofu is made from soybeans. It is a soy protein. We cook tofu the way that we would cook an egg, a chicken breast, a custard or even as a mousse. In Hong Kong cuisine there is a tofu dessert that is made with silken soft tofu by simmering it in palm sugar and coconut water in an oak cask. It is delicious, comforting and light. Tofu dishes do tend to be rather heavy because firm tofu is so rich. After all, tofu is a meat substitute.
Steaming extra firm tofu and vegetables is a nice fast and healthy, yet filling meal. Cook it for 15 minutes and eat.
1 pound extra firm tofu, cut in one inch cubes
2 leeks, sliced from the root to the light green part
of the leaf, soak in cold water and rinse twice to remove dirt
1/3 cup broccoli crowns
1/3 cup cauliflower, small bunches/crowns
1/3 cup purple potato/purple yam, thin sliced
10 basil leaves
1 teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon grated ginger or galanga
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 cloves garlic or garlic chives, sliced thin
Arrange the tofu, vegetables and potato in the steamer basket. Sprinkle with soy sauce, basil, ginger and garlic. Cover it all with the sliced leeks. Place bamboo steamer over the water in the pot and turn heat on high. When it comes to a boil turn it down to medium high and let cook for 15 minutes. Turn heat off.
Divide the ingredients between two plates (or four small plates). Very good cool weather meal or even after a high energy day outside. This is one big hearty meal. Steaming can be healthy, filling and fast.
CHICKEN AND COUS COUS
Chicken breast with mint, garlic and apples, steamed with couscous. Just writing this one makes me hungry! Again, here is an easy dish that takes no time at all to prepare. Clean up is always just a hot water rinse away. What is left to do after a bamboo steamer dinner? Pour out the water and wash the pot. Rinse the bamboo with hot water and mild soap. Drain and rub the steamer with light cooking oil to keep the bamboo from cracking.
Couscous is a kind of pasta. It is made with crushed semolina flour and water. It is in small grains that resemble a seed. Couscous is often mistakenly thought of as a grain. It is a North African and Near East pasta that is good as a dessert with milk and dried fruits and nuts or as a tagine (an upside down looking cone that is the dome for cooking in a pan over open fires) cooking ingredient, and for us as a bountiful ingredient with a bright and Spring enhancing dish.
9 ounces chicken breast, diced
4 ounces green beans
10 leaves mint
5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 apple, diced (Fuji or lady gala)
1 lemon, juiced
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
½ cup couscous
1 tablespoon rotelle (tomato and jalapeno)
Soak the couscous in a cup of hot water for five minutes. Remove and rinse. Mix with the rotelle. Place cheesecloth down on the steamer basket and then the couscous on the cheesecloth. In the other tier arrange the rest of the ingredients, sprinkle with lemon juice, salt pepper and vinegar. Set the chicken in the bottom tier and the couscous in the top. Cover and steam for 15 minutes. Turn off and let it sit there for five more minutes.
Arrange the pasta on two plates and then the apple chicken over the top of the couscous. Garnish with seasonal fruit.
I hope you enjoyed these easy, except for the haw mok, meals. Bamboo, water and heat. I like that, bamboo, water and heat is all you need to make the best of a lazy night at home.
Belle of the South
I saw her giggle at Elvis Presley,
Heard her laugh at the mention of Howard Hughes,
And I could swear I saw her tremble
When I joked about Robert Mitchum in Thunder Road.
There are photos of her as a bobby sockser
On her Shwinn bicycle near Charleston harbor.
This teenaged Tucker country princess,
She is more at home here in our Georgia.
There’s not one hairdo duplicated in any photos,
At least none of which she is willing to share!
Belle of the South and Woman of the House,
She can scare the whiskers off a catfish
And charm them back on as fast as that.
In thick and thin she is clear and true,
Wherever she stands there is love,
This Belle of the South has traveled the World
And for a while she was the Belle of the East
When she lived in far Calcutta.
When she married
(oh wow how she loves to marry!)
I saw her smiling,
Like a Kennedy Rose in full daylight,
Like magnolia blossoms after the rain,
She is all things bright and loving,
She is the Mother lion on Discovery Channel,
She is the Belle of The South,
And always she is Mother,
There is no other name.
She has more Southern stories
Than Stone Mountain has granite,
And there is a moral to every tale.
She has more friends, churches and charities
Than children and grand children,
So we have to make appointments
Just to have an evening alone with her.
We all claim her as our own,
This Belle of the Cofer/England Tucker Clan,
She is everything a Belle should be and more.
Wisdom, strength, devotion and power.
This is what a true Southern woman is,
The Belle and the Flower,
The Belle and the Mother.
She is ours.