As you know from my last post, Chinese (Lunar) New Year is a big deal at our house: it’s the one holiday we brought back with us from China to celebrate with family and friends, ringing it in with joyful noise!
Pretty much every food item at the table bears some significance for the coming year. Anything with a round shape will bring good luck; longer foods like noodles and long beans bring happiness and longevity. My favorites are dumplings (I’ll make the traditional 100!) which, shaped like old Chinese coins, signify wealth, and whole steamed fish, signifying abundance and plenty. Preparing the fish whole is meant to ensure a good start and finish to the new year (head to tail!), with good luck throughout. With all this in mind, who am I to mess with tradition?
I love making whole steamed fish. While it’s perfect for this celebration dinner, the simple ingredients and preparation make it a terrific choice for a weeknight meal. You can have dinner on the table in less than 45 minutes from start to finish!
Fresh fish is a must. Wabash Seafood Company in downtown Chicago is my personal go-to spot for fresh seafood. A family-run business for nearly 30 years, they make us feel like family whenever we’re there. Their fish is amazing, and special orders are never a problem. For feeding a group at Chinese New Year, I usually go with a larger whitefish. But for this post, I wanted something that would work well for just the two of us for dinner. Whatever you choose, make it a mild, non-oily fish. We decided on a small steelhead trout at about 1.5 pounds, which they scaled and gutted for us. I also asked them to remove the dorsal (back) fin, because the edges can sometimes be a little sharp.
The actual cooking of this fish will go very quickly, so it’s best to mise en place (set up) all your ingredients ahead of time. There are so few ingredients that this should take you no more than about 20 minutes. I’m using:
- 6-7 scallions
- about 2” of fresh ginger
- ½ tsp fine sea salt mixed with ½ tsp sugar
- 5 Tbsp peanut (or corn) oil
- 3 Tbsp soy sauce (or tamari to make this dish gluten-free).
Peel the ginger and then slice it into thin strips, along with the scallions, separating the dark green tops from the light green/white bottoms. We know this type of thin slicing as “julienne”, but if you have a Chinese cookbook, you may see the term “silken threads”. I love the idea of silken threads, don’t you?
In preparing the fish for cooking, use a nice sharp knife to cleanly slice three diagonal slits along both sides of the body of the fish. No other seasoning is necessary; all flavoring will come after the fish is steamed.
I so enjoy using my fish kettle to steam fish. It is also known as a fish steamer or fish poacher. This piece of kitchen equipment allows you to steam or poach a fish with ease, avoiding messy transfers of cooked fish! And if, like me, you hate having a piece of equipment that is good for only one thing, the fish kettle can also serve double-duty if you want to use it to cook vegetables.
If you don’t have a fish kettle, you may use a bamboo steamer (with a lid) inside of a deep pot – or any set-up that will contain the steam around the fish. Using my fish kettle, I simply add about ¼” of water to the bottom: the water should come just to the bottom of the fish kettle insert. Cover the fish kettle, set it on high heat to boil and you’ll have a beautifully steamed fish in 8-10 minutes! You will be able to tell when the fish is done when you gently insert the point of a knife into the slits and see a nice flake on the fish.
While the fish is steaming, heat the peanut oil in a small pan on the stovetop until it begins to smoke – you’ll want it piping hot!
Once the fish is done, transfer it to a serving platter. Sprinkle with the salt/sugar mixture for a nice, even coating (you may or may not use all of the mixture). Then scatter the silken threads over the fish: first the ginger, then the dark green scallion tops, finishing with the light green/white scallion bottoms. Drizzle the hot oil over the top (you should hear some sizzle!). Finish with the soy sauce (or tamari) over the fish. You’ll see a beautiful sauce pool around the fish, perfect for your guests to spoon over their portions, once served.
The final presentation of this fish is festive and full of color – perfect for a celebration dinner. Happy Chinese New Year!
If you’re thinking about celebrating Chinese New Year, take a look at The Chopping Block's upcoming Chinese New Year Feast at the Merchandise Mart on Tuesday, February 20 at 6pm. We are also featuring Dim Sum & Then Some and Seafood 101 hands-on cooking classes.