Monday, June 6, 2011

Steamed sea bass. Chinese style.

One of my favorite dishes to order at Chinese restaurants in Chinatown is steamed fish. The fish is usually really fresh, coming either from the fish tanks within the restaurant or from the abundant Ctown's fish mongers. I'm convinced that this is the only way to order fish, as the recipe is a relatively healthy one - it doesn't have any of those mysterious gooey sauces and you actually know what type of fish you're eating.

It is also a very easy and quick recipe to replicate at home. It takes about 15-20 minutes to make, including prep time. You will need however either one of those Chinese wooden steamers or a wide enough pot with a steamer rack. The rack can be picked up at any Chinese store that sells cooking appliances for about $3. The good thing about Chinatown is that everything is cheap and nearby. And you can buy all of your supplies in a matter of an hour.

First thing you need to do is find a shop that has the freshest fish. For this recipe I like to use sea bass, which is easy to find. This is a great fish because it is not bony, has beautiful white flesh with a good amount of meat and mild flavor. If you order this dish in a restaurant the chances are you will be given a choice between sea bass or flounder, which is absolutely delicious but is often frozen.

So to the way to pick out the freshest fish is, first of all, not to be afraid to get your hands a little dirty. Don't ask the guy to give you one, select it yourself. Step right up to the counter and start touching. There're four things to look for.

1. Size. I like them at about 2lb or 12-14" including head and tail, so I can fit them in my pot.
2. Clearest eyes. Fish eyes tend to cloud and become milky-white if the fish has been lying there for too long.
3. The flesh should be firm and bounce back when you press it with your finger.
And finally, probably the most important sign,
4. Lift one of the gils, it should be healthy, dark red. If the gils have brown tint, the fish is not fresh.

Now ask the guy to gut it and clean the scales. Normally you would steam it with the head attached, but if that's not how you roll, tell him to cut it off as well. Then you need peanut oil ( or use a mix of vegetable oil and sesame seed oil), good quality rice vinegar, some good soy sauce (I prefer Premium Dark kind, it's more concentrated and you can use less of it so it's not that salty). You can get some Chinese cooking rice wine to marinate the fish, but I have tried without it and can barely tell the difference. You need some cilantro, green scallions, ginger and garlic.

Here it is in more detail:
1 sea bass - 2lb, about 14" long. Gutted and scales cleaned.
1/4 cup of peanut oil
1/3 cup of light rice vinegar
2 large cloves of garlic, cut into thin strips
Same amount of ginger, cut into thin strips
Half a cup of cilantro, coarsely minced
3 whole stalks of young green scallion
3 stalks of scallion cut into 2 inch segments on an angle and halved

First wash the fish, pat it dry and set it on a plate. With a sharp knife make quick diagonal slashes across one side of the fish, taking care not to cut too deep. Slice garlic and ginger, take a pinch and spread it inside the fish's gut. Drizzle some of the vinegar over the fish and let it stand while you prep the rest of the ingredients. Meanwhile, place the steam rack in your pot, pour some water in so there's about an inch of space between the surface and the rack. Bring water to a boil. When the water is rolling, reduce the heat, take three whole stalks of the scallion, cutting off and discarding the softest green tops, and place the scallions diagonally across the steam rack. This will prevent the fish from sticking to the rack. Finally, carefully place the fish on top of the scallions, making sure the fish rests comfortably and the entire surface is straight and even. Cover the pot, bring it to an even boil and let it steam for about 5-7 minutes.

Meanwhile, pour the oil into a small sauce pan and heat it over medium heat, until the oil starts to crackle and there's a whiff of just a slight smoke. Reduce the heat to a minimum and check your fish. You can tell the fish is ready when the diagonal cuts open up and the flesh is uniformly white. Turn off the heat under the fish and carefully, using a spatula and taking care not to tear the fish appart, transfer it into a large plate, large enough to accomodate the sause. When that's done, sprinkle the rest of the garlic, sliced scallions, ginger and cilantro over the fish. Take the heated oil and very carefully pour it over the fish. There will be crackling and slight splattering as the oil comes in contact with the fish's skin, crisping it. When the oil is poured take the soy sauce and the rest of the vinegar and drizzle over the fish. It's done.

One note about serving the fish. You will need two table spoons. Use a side of one spoon to cut across the spine of the fish, while lifting the meat off the bone. Use the second spoon to help you separate the bones as you fillet the fish and flip it butterfly open. Lift the spine with the attached bones, it should separate right off, and discard it. Check for renegade bones along the spine and pour the sauce over the meat.