The first time I had to test a recipe for steamed fish was back in the ’80s, when I was working in the test kitchen at Gourmet magazine. And truthfully, the very idea seemed preposterous.
Steaming anything over water had always struck me as boring. And the idea that you could count on a good result by applying such an intense method to a protein as delicate as fish seemed highly unlikely.
But the recipe in question relied on the Chinese method of steaming fish, and I became a believer the very first time I tried it. As is typical in Chinese cuisine, the secret is in the seasoning. Given their blandness, fish are a wonderful canvas for intense ingredients such as ginger, chilies and toasted sesame oil. Steaming them concentrates and amplifies their flavors. And an added bonus is that steaming requires very little fat.
This recipe works wonderfully using any thin fillet of fish, including char, catfish, trout and striped bass. And if you increase the cooking time, you can swap in any number of thicker fillets, including cod, sablefish and halibut. How do you know when the fish is cooked? Stick a knife through it. If it goes through easily, it’s done.
For this recipe I chose tilapia because it is a sustainably raised farmed fish. I prefer American-raised, as the quality is much higher than imported.
Chinese-Style Steamed Tilapia
5 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce, divided
2 tablespoons sake or dry sherry
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
3 teaspoons toasted sesame oil, divided
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 1/4 pounds tilapia fillets, cut into 4 portions
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps thinly sliced
3 scallions (white and light green parts), thinly sliced (about 1/3 cup)
1/2 large jalapeno chili or 1 serrano chili, very thinly sliced crosswise
In a small bowl, whisk together 3 tablespoons of the soy sauce, the sake or sherry, ginger, 2 teaspoons of the sesame oil and the cornstarch. Transfer the mixture to a zip-close plastic bag, add the tilapia, then shake to coat the fish with the marinade. Refrigerate for 20 to 30 minutes.
Fill a medium saucepan with about 1 inch of water. Fit the pan with a steamer basket, then line the basket with foil. Coat the foil with cooking spray. Bring the water to a boil.
Remove the fillets from the bag, then arrange them on the foil, folding if necessary to make them fit. Pour the marinade over the fish. Cover and steam the fish for 3 to 6 minutes, or until just cooked through.
Meanwhile, in a medium skillet over high, heat the vegetable oil until hot. Reduce the heat to medium, add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until just tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the scallions and chili and cook for another minute. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and 1 teaspoon of sesame oil. Transfer the fillets to plates and spoon the mushroom mixture over them. Serve immediately.
Yield: 4 servings
Approximate nutrition per serving: 330 calories, 20 gram fat (3 grams saturated, 52 percent fat calories), 30 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrate, 70 milligrams cholesterol, 1 gram dietary fiber, 830 milligrams sodium.