Spicy Steamed Salmon with Young Ginger

子薑蒸鮭魚

When I moved to San Francisco, two things caught my eye immediately in the local markets. One was giant fresh salmon, shiny silver on the outside and blazing ruby-red within, like no fish I had ever seen. The other was what in Chinese is called “tender” or “young” ginger, an antler-like root that looks much like the familiar, dark-skinned ginger, but is sheathed in a thin, blonde-gold skin from which sprout beautifully pale pink and green shoots. I quickly took to pairing them in a simple, Hunan-style dish, and a prettier, more delicious steamed fish can hardly be had.

  • If fresh salmon is not available, substitute any very fresh, firm, white-meat fish with a clean-tasting neutral character. In place of the young ginger, you may use the widely available, thick-skinned fresh ginger. Cut it literally into threads to mitigate its sharpness, and sprinkle it sparingly over the fish. For the ham, choose a strong-cured Smithfield or Westphalian ham, with a flavorful fat to add richness to the fish.
  • This is an elegant dish. It takes only minutes to prepare and should be the centerpiece of a meal.

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Ingredients

  • 1 pound fresh salmon steaks, cut ¾ inch thick (substitute any fresh, firm, “neutral”–tasting fish)
  • ⅛–¼ teaspoon Chinese or Japanese sesame oil

For seasoning the fish

  • 2 teaspoons salted Chinese black beans (not the variety seasoned with five-spice powder)
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • 1 teaspoon Chinese or Japanese sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced Smithfield or Westphalian ham
  • teaspoons minced fat from ham
  • 2–3 teaspoons finely minced fresh garlic
  • teaspoon dried red chili flakes
  • about ½ tablespoon fine julienne threads of fresh “young” ginger, cut 1½ inches long and as thin as possible
  • 1 hefty whole scallion, cut into 2½– inch lengths

Method

Readying the fish

Scrutinize the fish carefully, and remove any scales or blood. Dislodge any blood left clinging to the backbone with the tine of a fork. Do not wash the fish steaks; dab off any impurities with a damp, lint-free cloth or a wet hand.

Remove the “free” bones as described above in TECHNIQUE NOTES. Leave the backbone, attached bones, and skin in place. If you need to work in advance, you may refrigerate the boned fish for several hours, sealed airtight in plastic.

Steaming the salmon

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

Chop the black beans coarsely. Do not wash them. The salt will contribute to seasoning the fish. Combine the beans, wine, and 1 teaspoon sesame oil, stirring to blend. Let the mixture stand 5–10 minutes to exchange flavors.

Choose a heatproof plate or a Pyrex pie plate at least 1 inch smaller in diameter than your steamer. Oil the bottom lightly with ⅛–¼ teaspoon sesame oil, then put the fish steaks next to one another on the plate, arranged top to bottom for a pretty fit. Sprinkle the ham, fat, garlic, and red pepper flakes over the fish, then pour the black bean mixture evenly on top. Scatter on the ginger threads. Use only a bare sprinkling if the ginger is the stronger, thick-skinned variety. You can be more liberal with the subtle, young type. Lightly press the scallion with the broad side of a knife to release its juices, then distribute evenly over the fish.

Bring the water in the steamer to a full, gushing boil. Put the plate in the steamer, cover tightly, then steam over medium-high heat for 8–11 minutes. Steaks cut ½ inch thick will take 8–10 minutes. Steaks cut ¾ inch thick will take 9–11 minutes. While steaming, do not lift the lid to peer at the fish, lest you dissipate the heat. Check it when the time is nearly up. When properly steamed (to my taste), the fish will still look moist and red, but be neither fleshy nor raw.

Serve the fish promptly if you wish to eat it hot. If you wish to serve it tepid or at room temperature, remove it from the steamer when it is about 1 minute underdone, then let it cook to completion from its own heat.

Just before serving, remove the bones, then pull off the skin in a neat ribbon with the aid of a small knife. Discard most of the scallion, leaving a few nuggets on top for color, or arraying one of the prettier branch-like segments alongside. Serve the fish directly in the steamer basket, or transfer it carefully to heated serving plates with a spatula.

Leftovers keep 1–2 days and are very good cold. The salmon juices gel in a delicious aspic.

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