Food and Drink: Simply bringing out the best: There is no need to be clever about steaming: it's a quick and easy cooking method offering the pleasure of natural flavours

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Indy Lifestyle Online
My poor steamer. It used to be one of my favourite cooking utensils, but then went into a long hibernation, hidden away in a cupboard for a year, possibly longer.

Steaming was very much an Eighties method, all the rage when nouvelle and minceur were the watchwords of the cookery world. I used to be a dedicated steam- cook myself, and in the past few weeks I have rediscovered the virtues of this method. Florence, now almost five months old, has taken to solids with heartwarming keenness. Wanting to introduce her to pure, unsullied flavours, additive-free and all that, I have been steaming vegetables and fruit to make her purees. What has surprised me is how delicious they are with absolutely no seasoning.

You do not have to have a purpose-made steamer, but it helps. With several baskets that stack neatly over a pan of boiling water, you can cook a fair amount of food on a single ring - very economical. Until I located my old steamer, however, I was making do with a sieve balanced over a pan, which is fine for small quantities. Either way, do not pack too much in at once. Good circulation is essential for the steam to do its work.

Do not imagine that steaming over a fragrant stock will add much to the food; in fact, juices will drip down into the pan, adding flavour instead to the stock. If you are determined not to let these natural juices escape, catch them on a plate or a bed of foil, making sure there is a big enough gap at the edges for steam to rise up and swirl around. You can stop condensed steam dripping into it by laying a folded tea-towel under the steamer lid.

By and large, there is no point in trying to be clever with steaming. It is a method for bringing out the best in plain ingredients.

Savoy-wrapped chicken breasts

A jacket of green Savoy cabbage covers the nakedness of steamed chicken, and tastes good, too. Interior colour comes in the form of sun-dried tomato and chives.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 4 chicken breasts, boned and skinned

6 sun-dried tomatoes in oil, chopped

4oz (110g) goat's cheese

2tbs chopped chives

8 large Savoy cabbage leaves

salt and pepper

Preparation: Season chicken breasts lightly. Mash sun-dried tomatoes with goat's cheese, chives, plenty of freshly ground pepper and a little salt if needed. Smear the stuffing between the fillet underneath and the main breast.

Blanch the cabbage leaves in boiling water for about 1 minute until pliable. Drain and run under the cold tap. Drain again and pat dry. Snip out the thick part of the stem. Wrap around the chicken breasts enclosing them completely (you may not need all of the leaves).

Set on a plate and steam for 15- 20 minutes, until just cooked through.

Lamb couscous

A big, spiced lamb stew with hints of sweetness and the perfect starchy accompaniment, all cooked over one ring. Unfortunately, a Chinese-style steamer will not do. You need either a genuine Moroccan couscoussier or a large pan plus a large sieve or colander that can be balanced over it. Or you can cheat and 'steam' the couscous itself in the oven.

Most couscous sold here has already been cooked, so just needs rehydrating and a last-minute steam to separate the grains.

Serves 8

Ingredients: 8oz (220g) chickpeas, soaked overnight and drained

2lb (900g) shoulder of lamb, cut into 2in (5cm) pieces

4 large onions, thinly sliced

1/2 tbs freshly ground black pepper

1/2 tsp ground turmeric

1tsp ground cinnamon

1tsp ground ginger

1tsp ground cumin

2oz (55g) unsalted butter

12oz (340g) tomatoes, skinned and roughly chopped

12oz (340g) turnips, peeled and cut into 1 1/2 in (4cm) chunks

12oz (340g) carrots, thickly sliced

1 large butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cut into 1 1/2 in (4cm) chunks

6oz (170g) raisins

5tbs chopped coriander

salt

For the couscous:

1lb (450g) couscous

3oz (85g) unsalted butter, softened

Preparation: Drain the chickpeas and boil in fresh water for 30-45 minutes until half-cooked. Drain and put into a large pan or the base of a couscoussier with the lamb and onions. Sprinkle over all the spices and the salt and add the butter. Pour over 3 pints of water. Bring up to the boil and simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Now add the vegetables, raisins and half the coriander. Simmer for a further 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.

To prepare the couscous, pour over it an equal volume of hot water. Stir and leave to soak for about 5 minutes. Drain thoroughly, pressing out excess moisture. In a bowl, rub in the butter while the grains are still warm. Spoon into a sieve or steamer basket lined with muslin, or the top of the couscoussier, and place over the steaming broth for the last 20 minutes of the cooking time, covering with a lid or a dome of foil.

If you really cannot rig this up, you can always tip the buttered couscous into a shallow dish, cover loosely with foil and warm it up in the oven. It will produce just about enough steam to fluff it up.

It is usual to strain off the juices from the stew and serve in a separate bowl. Everyone helps themselves to couscous and meat and veg, then adds as much juice as they like. Even more genuine, of course, is to forget any idea of helpings and to eat from one big dish in the centre of the table, using your right hand only and no implements.

Papaya, pear and banana sorbet

This started off as baby food, but I sneaked a taste and decided it was too good to forgo. To differentiate between junior and adult versions, I boosted ours with a little lime juice and froze it into an entirely sugar-free sorbet: very virtuous and extremely good.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 1 papaya, deseeded, peeled and sliced

2 pears

2 bananas

juice of 1 lime

Preparation: Halve, deseed, peel and slice the papaya. Peel, core and slice pears, and peel and slice bananas, turning in a little of the lime juice as you work, to prevent browning. Steam the whole lot until tender. Process until smooth, adding enough of the remaining lime juice to enliven the flavours without making the puree so sharp that you need to add sugar.

If you have a sorbetiere, freeze as usual. If not, pour into a shallow container and place in the freezer, set to its coldest setting. When the sides have met, break them up and push into the centre of the container, then return to the freezer. Repeat once. When the sorbet is barely firm, scoop out and either process quickly to break up the ice flakes, or beat hard by hand. Then put it back into the container, and into the freezer - and that's it.

Well, almost: try to remember to move the container down into the fridge half an hour before eating so it has time to soften.

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