Clear-Steamed Flounder with White Pepper

清蒸比目魚

A “clear-steamed” fish is one that is steamed without bean condiments, in a clear, clean sauce comprised of soy sauce, wine, and the natural fish juices. Beyond that, the steaming ingredients may be few or many, all depending on the region, the occasion, and most important, the personality of the fish.

  • This medley of seasonings is especially tailored for the mild-mannered flounder, which needs the punch of pepper and the richness of oil to give it character and class. It is a simple recipe with only three requirements. The first is a superbly fresh whole flounder (or another suitable fish of the same type). Make sure its gills are red and the flesh is firm. Second are whole white peppercorns for grinding a “live” spice. Third is a well-cured Smithfield or Westphalian ham, with a flavorful fat to make up for the flounder’s lean. The fat is essential. If you cannot find the right ham, then use 3 or 4 strips of a good fatty bacon. Lay them whole over the fish and remove before serving.
  • This dish can be prepared and steamed within 30 minutes, dressed up or down as you like with the addition of a few scallion frills. It is an easy way to eat elegantly at the end of a busy day, and a wonderful dish to turn to when company is expected.

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Ingredients

  • 1 whole, very fresh flounder, pounds before gutting—thoroughly scaled and gutted, head and tail left on

To garnish the fish

To season the fish

  • 1 tablespoon thin (regular) soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese or Japanese sesame oil
  • coarse kosher salt, depending on saltiness of ham
  • ⅛–¼ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely minced Smithfield or Westphalian ham
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely minced fat from ham
  • ½ tablespoon fine julienne threads of fresh ginger, cut 1½ inches long and as thin as possible
  • 1 large whole scallion, cut into 2-inch lengths

Method

Preparing the fish for steaming

Clean the fish meticulously. Rinse with cold water, inside and out, then pat dry.

Score the fish on both sides at 1-inch intervals from collar to tail. Cut to within ¼ inch of the bone for a good penetration of seasonings and steam. If you need to work in advance, the scored fish may be refrigerated for several hours before steaming, sealed airtight.

Refrigerating the garnishes

Put the shredded scallion or scallion flowers in a water-flecked plastic bag. Seal the bag so as to trap a lot of air inside, then shake to mist the scallion with the water. Refrigerate 15 minutes or longer to curl the scallions.

Steaming the fish

(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)

Combine the soy, wine, and sesame oil, stirring to blend. If the ham is not particularly salty or you are using bacon, sprinkle the fish inside and out with about 1½ teaspoons coarse kosher salt. If the ham is highly seasoned, you will need little or no salt, depending on your taste. (With Smithfield, I use none.) Grind fresh pepper over the fish to taste, then rub the salt and pepper into the score marks with your fingers. Lay the fish white side up in a deep serving plate or Pyrex pie plate at least 1 inch smaller in diameter than your steamer. Pour the liquid seasonings evenly on top, scatter the minced ham and fat over the fish, then sprinkle with the ginger threads. Press the scallion lengths under the side of a cleaver or broad knife to release their juices, then array evenly over the fish.

Bring the steaming water to a full, gushing boil over high heat. Add the plate to the steamer, cover tightly, then steam over medium-high heat 12–15 minutes, until the flesh nearest the bone in the midsection of the fish is firm and white. Do not lift the lid to check the fish until it is almost done, lest you dissipate the steam.

Remove the plate from the steamer, or serve the fish directly in the steamer basket, if you have one made attractively of bamboo. If you need to transfer the fish, do so carefully, sliding it onto a heated platter with the aid of a broad spatula, then rimming it with the sauce. Discard the steamed scallion, then decorate the plate with several scallion flowers or a sprinkling of the curly scallion threads. Serve immediately, while hot and steaming.

Leftovers are excellent cold. Bone the fish, cover it with the sauce, then seal airtight and refrigerate. The juices will gel in a pleasantly peppery aspic, and the flesh will turn smooth and slippery once chilled.

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