You love fish. You order it all the time when you dine out. But you don't cook it at home, right? Let me guess — you overcook it in the oven and it falls apart on the grill? No worries. There are other ways, methods that get it right just about every time. Sure, there's some special equipment, but it comes cheap: parchment paper ($3), a bamboo steamer ($19) or cedar planks ($7 for 2) and you're cooking.
Tender-fleshed fish, vibrantly hued veggies with just the right snap: In careful hands, steam is the gentlest of cooking methods. The method can impart added flavor to cooking foods, while restoring moisture and maintaining the integrity of delicate foods like flaky fish.
Even before prehistoric cooks had a handle on cooking with fire, they cooked with steam, hauling warm rocks from natural hot springs to heat water. At its most basic, to steam is to suspend food over simmering liquid, allowing the gentle convection of hot water molecules to penetrate the food in question. Just how you go about this culinary sauna is a matter of choice.
In much of Asia, a multilevel bamboo steamer is tucked into a wok of just-boiling water, a tight lid trapping the transforming vapor. On the other hand, the French often prefer swaddling foods "en papillote" — parchment, waxed paper or even foil serving as a sealed envelope to steam foods in their own evaporating liquids. Beyond these, there's the classic metal, collapsible steamer basket fitted into the bottom of a pasta cooker or stockpot, or the generous area provided by a fish poacher fitted with a wire rack. These are all viable methods for gently cooking fish.
Regardless of method, steam's benefits are indisputable. Rendering extra cooking fats unnecessary, steaming goes one step further, elegantly stripping fatty meats of their excess calories as the heated water molecules "sweat" out the molten fat. And in vegetable cooking, high levels of vitamins A and C are retained in the finished dish. Steam can be harnessed from broth, wine or herb-infused liquids, delicately flavoring the finished foods.
Bamboo steamers are available at nearly every Asian grocery. Be sure to oil the surfaces before using it for the first time, and make sure it sits just above the water level of the simmering wok or pot underneath (if your water level is higher, you're boiling, not steaming).
For cooking "en papillote," parchment trumps waxed paper (which tears easily and will burn at high temps) and foil (which will discolor and react to salty or acidic foods), and it makes a nice tableside presentation, presuming diners know not to eat it. Choose fish and other foods that cook quickly: flaky fish versus meaty fish, chicken breast versus thigh. With veggies, par cook things like potatoes that take more cooking time. And a little splash of wine, citrus, broth, butter or even coconut milk ensures that the packet has enough liquid to really steam, but remember that veggies like spinach and tomato throw a lot of liquid of their own. Olives, herbs, garlic and zest add their own robust flavor to the cooking broth in the packet.
On the board
Many of us use a gas grill, which has two shortcomings for grilling fish: It doesn't impart that rich, smoky flavor, and fish can stick or fall through the slats. Voila, the cedar plank. A clean, untreated piece of wood (cedar is good, but cherry, alder, oak and others work nicely) about 1 inch thick provides a stable surface for fish and imparts its own sweet, smoky flavor. Many grocery stores now carry a line of cedar planks in their barbecue sections.
The only essential tasks are soaking the board for at least an hour before grilling and very lightly brushing the soaked board with cooking oil so your fish doesn't stick. Cook over medium high heat, with the board directly over the flames. While the fish itself is cooking indirectly, the board should be allowed to smolder a bit around the edges, providing delicious smoky flavor. (On the other hand, keep a spray bottle of water nearby in case the wood flames up too much.)
You don't need to flip your fish (salmon works especially well with the flavor of cedar). Cook it skin-side down, marinated in whatever suits you. Because the board is between fish and fire, it takes nearly double the regular cooking time; in the case of a salmon fillet that may be 15 minutes, time you can spend preparing a side veggie or salad. Remove the plank with an oven mitt, then slide it off onto a platter or serve it dramatically directly from the plank.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293.