Steamed fish might sound like blah spa food best left for the low-fat fanatics who spread mustard on their multigrain toast and leave the yolks out of their omelets, but I don't think so. Steaming is a gentle cooking method perfect for delicate and subtle foods. And if you collect the steaming liquid, which contains the fish's juices and any other tasty bits you add to the mix, you basically have an instant sauce to go with your protein. I certainly prefer steaming fish to grilling it, and unless I'm going to cover the fish in some kind of coating I'd rather not sauté or fry. Sautéd or fried fish are great too, of course, but there's something about the simplicity of steaming that I find immensely appealing.
There are several ways to steam fish. Cooking it on a plate in a steamer basket is one way, but it can be tricky to get the hot plate of fish out without some specialized tongs that I don't have. Baking en papillote, in a paper or foil pouch, is essentially steaming. It's effective and the presentation is dramatic but it has two drawbacks. One, cutting paper into papillote shapes is an extra step that takes a few minutes. Two, it's impossible to check for doneness without opening the pouch and if the fish isn't ready it's not easy to reseal the paper. Like everyone else I'm always looking for shortcuts and tricks and I think I've figured out a good alternative for steaming fish which I am calling pan steaming. I don't claim to have discovered this for the whole world, just for myself. Indeed, I recall Jacques Pépin cooking eggs using a similar method on one of his TV shows so perhaps I owe my idea to him.
For this method you will need a nonstick pan with a tight-fitting lid (or aluminum foil), a little bit of oil, a piece of fish, a few tablespoons of water, and some salt and pepper. Some aromatics or other flavorful complements to the fish are nice and lately I've been sticking with the standard Chinese accompaniments of fermented black beans and ginger sliced into matchsticks. Basically, anything you might put in a papillote should work: lemon, garlic, tomatoes, capers, herbs, spices, white wine.
You heat the pan with a drop of oil in it--I have been using peanut oil--and when it's hot but not smoking lay the fish, seasoned with salt and pepper, in the oil. Last night we had escolar, which is rich and meaty, but I've done this with salmon and mahi mahi too with good results. Scatter the ginger and black beans (or whatever) over the fish, add the water to the hot pan, and cover immediately. Such a small amount of water should boil and turn to steam immediately in a hot pan and so keeping it over medium heat should steam things up well. After about ten minutes check for doneness, which will depend on the thickness and shape of your fish. Filets of medium thickness might be done in under ten minutes; thicker pieces might need another few. I have been cooking one pound pieces without portioning them first since big pieces are less likely to overcook than small pieces. I test for doneness by poking around with a thin-bladed knife.
Made with ginger and black beans, the fish juices, water, and aromatics combine to make a nice sauce to drizzle over the fish and some steamed white rice. A green vegetable or salad is nice too.