There is this awesome guy (Jeremy) who is a server at the restaurant next door to the kitchen I used to run who happens to be an amazing fisherman and who also happens to have recently given us the most gorgeous whole fish! Freshly caught, eyes still clear, glistening with health, the whole package! I just had to make a dish that was all about the entire fish, rather than filleting it and making it look any less like the perfect specimen that it was. Whole steamed fish it would be!
The day had been 90°, sunny and gorgeous, so my house was about 115°. The last thing I wanted to do was run the oven, so I decided to steam the fish to cook it. I don’t have a steamer, so I made one using a deep roasting pan, a roasting rack, and a piece of parchment paper. I wanted to cook the fish on a bed of herbs, so I needed a way to keep the herbs next to the fish and the spacing on my tall rack was too wide and my wire racks were too short for the depth of water that I wanted to use. A relatively thin strip of parchment allowed me to create the bed, but still hit most of the fish with a good deal of steam.
Because the fish was really big, I knew that I would need about 15 minutes cooking time, and I didn’t want to open and close the lid checking and adding water, so I wanted to set up a steamer that could hold a pretty serious quantity of liquid. I put a fair amount of flavor in the steaming liquid and in and around the fish, and wanted to keep it all together while it was cooking. Leaving the top closed was also really important so that the steamed fish would cook evenly.
Preparing the fish:
You’ll need one whole fish, 1-2 pounds works well. I like red snapper or sea bass for this dish.
Remove any scales from your fish. I used the back of a chef’s knife for this, but they make special tools that work really well. You could even use a butter knife if you want. I took the back of the chef’s knife and pulled it in the opposite direction of the way they grew, basically against the grain. The areas to look for are the belly and the edges of the fish including the top, near the dorsal fins, and the head. This step is really the messiest one! I wasn’t paying attention and spent a pretty interesting amount of time later that evening picking scales off of my kitchen window.
Cut off any fins with kitchen shears. They are pretty tough, so be careful with this step. Leave the tail and head intact for presentation.
Look at the cavity, and you should see the backbone. You may also see a membrane that you should pierce and cut, revealing a blood line near the bone. Run your finger or a spoon across it to clean it thoroughly.
On each side of the fish, cut three deep diagonal lines almost all the way down to the bone.
(Optional Info): If you get a fish from a store, it will probably already have the gills and entrails removed, but if not, I used a kitchen shears to snip the gills and pull most of the intestines (carefully!!) out through the space where the gills were. Once you figure out how to do that, cleaning fish stops being a messy process where you might accidentally cut through organs. Instead, many of the organs are connected and can gently be pulled out.
Next, cut a line (you can use a knife or kitchen shears for this) along the center of the stomach from the chin to the fin on the bottom of the fish, exposing the cavity where your entrails used to be. If there’s anything left in there, pull it out, and then carefully rinse out all of the blood. Fish blood doesn’t taste good, so you really want to get out as much as you can.
Give the fish a final rinse, shake off the excess water and pat dry with paper towels.
Whole Steamed Fish With Ginger and Herbs
- 1-2 pound whole fish or fillets (1" or thicker yield the best results)
- 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
- 1 bunch scallions - 1 stalk minced or sliced into rings, 1-2 stalks very finely julienned and held in ice water, and the rest chopped into 3" lengths
- 1-2 radishes, julienned and held in ice water
- 3" piece of ginger - thinly sliced and gently smashed. I use the handle of my knife.
- 1 bunch of cilantro
- 4-5 very thin slices of lemon
- 1 tsp chili oil (if you like a little heat)
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- ¼ cup + 3 tablespoons soy sauce (I always use tamari because it's gf)
- 1 tsp rice wine vinegar
- ½ tsp sugar
- salt, to taste (I used a small pinch)
- 1 fresh chili, thinly sliced (only if you like heat)
- 2 tablespoons neutral cooking oil - I actually used coconut oil and loved it, but you could use vegetable or grapeseed oil or whatever you have.
- (If you have a steamer that's large enough to hold your fish, go ahead and set it up. I didn't, so I took a deep roasting pan and a roasting rack and put two inches of water in it, coming up to just below the rack. You don't want the fish to be touching the water. Then I put a strip of parchment paper about 3" wide in the center of the rack that I could line the herbs along. Bring the water to a boil, add your broth and ¼ cup soy sauce and simmer gently. For a lid, I just used aluminum foil.)
- Grab your fish! Gently sprinkle a little salt all over the fish, both inside and outside. Take half of your long scallion pieces and half of your cilantro, and a few slices of ginger and stuff them inside the fish. If you are using fillets, skip this. Put the rest of your ginger and some small scallion pieces into the cuts on each side of the fish and the lemon slices in the middle.
- Make the herb bed. Take the rest of your long scallion pieces and cilantro and lay them on the sheet of parchment over the rack where you will be steaming your fish.
- Make sure your liquid is simmering pretty gently (fish don't like rolling boils), carefully place your fish on the herb bed, and cover your steamer. If you have a fish that's about 1#, check it after 12 minutes. Mine was closer to 2#, and 15 minutes was perfect. If you're working with fillets, you probably want to check them after 5 minutes if they're really thin, and 7 minutes if you've got thick ones.
- What you're looking for is fish that flakes easily when you poke it with a knife near the top fin along the backbone. If it's still holding together, cover it again, and check after another minute or two. The timing here is all about the thickness of your fish and how gently you're simmering the liquid. Definitely make sure you don't run out of steaming liquid!
- When it's done, carefully remove it from the pan and put it on your serving platter or a board.
- Make the sauce for the whole steamed fish fish by combining the rice vinegar, sugar, sesame oil, chili oil, and your remaining soy sauce. Taste for seasoning.
- In a separate pan, heat up the cooking oil almost until you see smoke. Add the ginger and scallions and fry for 5-10 seconds to really pull out the flavors. While it's still super hot, pour this over the fish right on the skin.
- Garnish the whole steamed fish with the chilies, julienned scallions and radishes and dig in! I decided to serve my fish with a small salad, but some rice would have been fantastic. At first, I left the sauce on the side for dipping, but eventually wound up just pouring it over the fish and was very happy with that decision!
Looking for some more great fish recipes? You might like the healthy “salmon tartare” kale salad, the simple crispy skin salmon with sesame-cucumber salad, the alaskan halibut with prosciutto, olive, and roast beet salad, or the petrale sole with black lentils, celery root puree, and pomegranate vinaigrette!
Just looking for something spicy and filled with garlic? You might really like the intense chickpeas with spicy tomato sauce.