November 15, 2009
Ever since I received an electric steamer for my birthday last summer, I have been steaming vegetables with abandon.
Before that, I used a set of those bamboo baskets that you nest in a wok if you have one (I don't) or place on a saucepan that's never quite the correct size for optimal steam circulation. That thing sputtered and leaked and drove me a little crazier every time I used it, so this new appliance was a considerable upgrade. It is also beautiful and roomy and easy to clean, and I am pleased as punch with it.
So I have been steaming a lot of vegetables lately, often with a stalk of rosemary and a clove of garlic in their midst, and I have therefore been facing the only challenge that this cooking method entails: finding worthy dressings to bolster the vegetables' flavor.
A drizzle of good olive oil, a quick yogurt sauce with a squirt of lemon, a thin coating of pesto -- these are all lovely ways to do just that, but my current favorite is this: a simple tahini sauce with a few herbs thrown in.
Most of you are probably familiar with tahini (or tahina), a paste made of sesame seeds, hulled and ground. It is a ubiquitous ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisines, including those of Lebanon and Israel, and it is particularly well known as a key component of hummus or halva.
It can also be thinned into a quick and easy sauce that is traditionally served with falafel, fish, or meat, and goes superbly well with steamed vegetables.
The flavor of this sauce is rich but bright, and I find its subtle nuttiness enhances the other elements on the plate like magic. I'm especially fond of the effect it has on carrots, broccoli, and winter squash.
I like to prepare a batch of it and keep it on hand, drizzling it on whatever I happen to be making or serving over the next few days. I sometimes skip the lemon juice (if I don't have any) and the garlic (if I can't be bothered to peel and crush it) but I seldom do without the herbs.
Tahini can be found at Middle Eastern markets and natural food stores; all tahinis are not created equal, though, so it may be worth trying different brands until you find the one you like best. In Janna Gur's gorgeous Book of New Israeli Food (previously mentioned here), she recommends "tast[ing] it straight from the jar. It should be nutty and slightly sweet, without a trace of bitterness." And don't be tempted, as I once was, to get "whole" sesame paste made from unhulled seeds: it is more nutritious, no doubt, but also significantly more bitter.
Would you like to share your favorite way of dressing steamed vegetables, or your favorite uses of tahini?
Simple Tahini Sauce
- 4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) good-quality raw tahini (a paste made of ground hulled sesame; I buy Jean Hervé's, which is organic and stone-ground)
- about 2 tablespoons fresh herbs: a small bunch of chives, snipped, or a handful of cilantro, parsley and/or mint leaves, chopped
- a few drops of lemon juice (optional)
- 1/2 garlic clove, very finely crushed (optional)
- salt, pepper
Makes about 120 ml (1/2 cup) sauce -- a little more or a little less depending on the desired thickness. You can scale the recipe up or down depending on your needs.
Spoon the tahini into a bowl. Add the herbs, the lemon juice and garlic if using, and some salt and pepper. Add a drop of cold water and stir it in with the spoon. When it is mostly incorporated, add a drop more water and repeat. It is important to thin the tahini little by little, or it may curdle and be difficult to fix.
As you add in the water, you will notice a change in the consistency and color of the mixture -- from grainy to smooth, and from beige to a lighter, off-white shade. Add enough water to get the consistency you're looking for, from thick/creamy for a dip to thin/milky for a sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Serve with vegetables (particularly carrots, broccoli, green beans, eggplant, winter squash, cucumbers); as a dressing for salads; over chickpea patties, chicken, lamb, fish; in pita sandwiches, etc.
Any leftovers will keep for a few days, tightly covered and refrigerated.
Black Radish and Potato Salad