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 flavours. 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.
Ideally, you'd cook this fish in a Chinese bamboo steamer. But if you don't have one of those, you can use a collapsible metal steamer lined with foil. I love those steamer baskets. They are great for steaming vegetables as well as meat, fit into most saucepans, store easily and are virtually indestructible. I'm still using one I bought during my college days.
This recipe is quick, healthy and delicious. You might want to think of it as a jumping-off point for other steamed fish dishes. In fact, if — like most of us — you're recovering from a month or two of holiday overindulgence, this little gem could enter your regular rotation as a lighter dish for the new year.
CHINESE-STYLE STEAMED TILAPIA
Start to finish: 40 minutes (10 minutes active)
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 tilapi, 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.
Nutrition information per serving: 330 calories; 170 calories from fat (52 per cent of total calories); 20 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 70 mg cholesterol; 9 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 30 g protein; 830 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."