by Shomit Datta
What was once the de rigueur method of cooking carrots, only to have them ignored by all diners is making a comeback amid health food enthusiasts and foodies alike. Steaming is an indirect heat method of cooking food in which food is suspended over boiling water in a steamer basket or metal steamer bowl. This method of cooking allows food to retain its nutritional content better than any other form of cooking. It also gives the food a clean, crisp, and moist texture while retaining the food’s natural qualities. It does not result in a heavy cuisine, but rather a delicate and balanced one.
This introduction at first might not paint a picture of diners ravenously tearing away at a roasted carcass of lamb while the few vegetables on the platter are a mere afterthought. True indeed, steaming does not invoke such culinary gluttony but when done properly, provides an excellent meal where even the self-proclaimed gourmands can admit is a delicately balanced and interesting meal. The traditional method of steaming, like everything else, has evolved from steamed veggies into cooking methods prized by the world’s top chefs. Some of those methods are cooking “en papilotte,” “cartuccio,” “en souvide,” and a little known fact to all you White Castle lovers out there: you know why their burgers taste the way they do? Answer: the burgers are steamed over grilling onions. They do not actually touch the grill.
Here is an exciting meal that you can serve your family, or even impress your friends with: Steamed Fish with ginger, lemon, and scallions
- Pot to boil water (a Wok works best because it can accommodate virtually any steamer size)
- A Kettle with boiling water
- A bamboo steamer
- Either some cabbage or a medium plate
- Cutting board
- Whole fish, cleaned and descaled (red snapper, tilapia or striped bass works really well)
- Scallions (also called green onions, or long onions)
- Cilantro (the plant from which the spice coriander grows)
- Kosher or sea salt
- Fresh cracked pepper
Step one: Boil Water
- Fill your pot or wok with enough water for boiling so that the steamer will not be submerged or be in contact with water
- Start the kettle of boiling water
- Do not watch as we know the old saying about a watched pot
Step two: Prep Veg
- Prepare aromatics for inserting into fish- slice the ginger and lemon into rounds about 2-3mm thick (if you are not familiar with the metric system you can either learn, and join the rest of the world, or, just know that it means pretty thin – not paper-thin)
- Julienne Ginger, and scallions (this is a fancy term for cutting them into thin sticks)
- Roughly chop cilantro
Step three: Prepare fish
- Wash inside and out with cold water, pat dry
- Slice fish on each side on the bias (on an angle) without cutting through the spine
- Salt and pepper the cavity and surface of the fish
- Insert round slices of ginger and lemon into the cuts you have made in the fish (you can also jam some into the cavity where the guts were removed so it steams from the inside out also)
Step four: Prep Steamer basket
- Place some small rounds of cabbage leaf into steamer or small plate (Fish should suspend over sides a bit) so that the fish does not come into contact with steamer. The thing to be sure of is that you do not cover the entire bottom surface of the steamer or else the steam will not get through very well.
Step five: place fish onto plate or on bed of cabbage
- Generously cover fish with julienned ginger and scallions and then cover with top of steamer basket
- Let is steam. If the water level gets too low, add already boiling water from the kettle. If you were to add cold water at this point it would slow down your cooking process and produce inferior and limp veggies.
- Cooking time depend on the thickness of your fish. Look for a flaky texture but not dried. You could search for some guidelines on the internet where they claim a certain cooking time per inch thickness of the fish but I would rather you go by feel. Thickness is not uniform since (except for flat fish like sole) it will be thicker closer to the spine than the belly. Hint: Check the thickest spot (near the back of the head…you are serving your fish head on right? I shudder to think otherwise) with a toothpick by lifting up a bit. It should be cooked and flaky but not dried.
- Right before you serve your fish, sprinkle with chopped cilantro and watch as your diners ohh and ahh at its gourmet presentation.
- Serve with saffron scented or plain rice.
Some international methods of steaming that has gained much acclaim:
- Asia: steamed dumpling and buns…Dim Sum anyone?
- French: en papillotte (steamed in pockets of parchment) or cooking in vessie. The vessie is a pig or sheeps bladder. An absolutely famous dish is taking a high quality free range chicken (poulet de brest is prefered if you can get your hands on one), stuffing it with foie gras and black truffle. then partially filling the bag with red wine. The bladder is sewn shut and then set in a pot of boiling water. This method has evolved into the haute couture of cooking “en souvide” where the food is placed in a sealable plastic bag and then cooked in boiling water. It is very high-end and ensures that your food is cooked very evenly.
- Italian: cartuccio is the Italian version of cooking “en papillotte” No true Italian chef would use a French term in their kitchen…they are still pissed that some people claim pasta was invented in China. That is blasphemy.
- Irish: Haggis! Sheeps pluck ground with oats and black pepper steamed in bladder.
Try this method sometime…you will get a healthy, interesting meal and can woo your friends into thinking that it was an elaborate production. It is also a test to see who the true gourmands are because they will come close to physical violence over the head of the fish. The cheeks are the most delicate–bite on it. Pseudo foodies will be exposed!