… or Barley if You Prefer:
(c) 2015, Davd
One reason i began this series under the name “Bachelor Cooking”, was that i cooked for only myself most times then, and still do now. Sausage soup, the first technique i published, is a good hearty meal that is cooked in one pot1, and keeps well in the ‘fridge: Cook once, enjoy twice, perhaps as many as five times. This steamed-fish technique, which i’m “posting” now because of the fall Pacific-salmon harvest, also cooks a meal in one pot; and much as sausage soup can be made with several kinds of sausage, this technique can be adapted to several kinds of fish, not just pink salmon.
I use the same basic technique with cod, haddock, rockfish (“red snapper” is often its name near Canada’s West Coast; but that name also applies to some different, warmer water fishes) and greenling. It might adapt well to freshwater fishes like pickerel [the one the Americans call “walleye” et les Québecois, doré], and perhaps whitefish, perch and [freshwater] bass. I tend not to use it with stronger flavoured fishes like wild Atlantic, chinook, coho, and sockeye salmon, nor with herring, mackerel or tuna… all of which fishes are better than pink salmon, cod, or haddock, when smoked. It seems there’s a distinction between medium-flavoured fishes that steam well, and stronger flavoured fishes, higher in fat content, that smoke better than they steam2.
The equipment you’ll need are a steaming basket, a cooking pot in which that steaming basket fits well, and “the usual utensils.” If you start with skin-on filets, a filet knife is best for slicing the meat off the skin. (The skin can be boiled a minute or two and given to your dog or cat. Most humans i know consider it to taste “rank.” I would not steam fish, skin-on,)
I usually steam carrots with fish: They taste good together, they cook well together, and the carrots improve the taste of the liquid under the steaming basket—in which, following this technique, you’ll be cooking rice or maybe barley. Your one-pot meal then consists of steamed fish, steamed carrots, and seasoned rice3. Cod and haddock each make a fine meal cooked this way; pink salmon is not so much my favourite, as equal to them4 and in season this month.
For the cooking liquid, i prefer vegetable stock to water. White wine, and beer, make fine cooking liquids, too5. I’d avoid stock that has a lot of beet or beet greens in it, for steaming fish. Broccoli, cabbage, carrot, celery, cauliflower, onion, and turnip are the basic stock vegetables; spinach, chard, beans and beet greens in small amounts can be fine. Beets are OK in sausage-soup and stew stock, but i’d avoid them with steamed seafood, partly because they’ll turn the grain pink.
I put 2½—3 times the volume of stock [or water] in the bottom of the pot, as i intend to add of rice. (If it’s more than three times as much, there’s a risk the rice will be more like a soup than a cooked grain you can put on a dinner plate. Fish varies in moisture content, stoves vary in how hard they boil water at any setting i can name in words; so it is not possible to state exactly what ratio of water to grain, to use.) A little oil or bacon drippings will help the flavour of the grain, and help keep it from sticking to the pot. If you have lots of chive, you can snip some into the water—or onto the grain after it has cooked.
I tend to cut the carrots lengthwise, into quarters. Very thick carrots might be cut into smaller fractions; the idea is to have 2-4 inch [5-10 cm] long pieces of carrot, about 1 cm [¼ -½ inch] thick. which you lay on the bottom of the steaming basket with spaces for the steam to rise between them. The salmon filet pieces are laid flat on top of them, so the carrots get just a little more cooking than the fish.
I sprinkle my pieces of pink salmon filet with dill weed, or tarragon, and cut chive (chopped onion will do6 but chive [even frozen chive], or in second place cut green onion, will be better.) Chive and onion should be fresh or fresh-frozen, not dried; dried dill weed and tarragon, if dried well, will do fine. (If you’re steaming cod or haddock, finely cut sage might also do.) Finally, sprinkle a little black pepper on top.
I put a volume of dry uncooked grain equal to, or less than, the volume of fish i’m cooking, into something over twice that volume of stock. Start with at least 2½ times to be sure.
You don’t need very high heat, on a gas or electric stove, to bring the stock to a boil. It’s fine, probably preferable, to put the grain in the stock before it’s heated; and moderate heat under the pot will make sticking less likely… as will that little bit of oil or bacon fat. Stir the grain when you put it in, and again a few minutes later. When the water comes to a boil, or just before—stir again. (A glass lid on your cooking pot will help you see how steamy the inside is, and how the pieces of fish are going whitish and opaque, and thus, estimate how the heating is going.)
I suggest having a metal plate to stand the steaming basket on, when you take it out of the pot to stir the rice. (A regular dinner plate will do—but you’re likely to stand that plate on a stove element some times; and if the element is hot, metal takes it better. I have an elongated stainless steel plate that i use, and have used for a few decades now.)
If the pot has a glass lid, you’ll be able to see the fish starting to cook… a good sign to stir the grain again, if you haven’t done so lately. Lower the heat to what will keep the water boiling but not wildly7. When the fish looks fully cooked, put a fork into a few of the carrot pieces; and feel if they’re cooked. (If in doubt, stir the grain, and that will indicate if it is cooked.) If in doubt, cook 2-3 minutes longer than your guess as to when it’s done, the first time you use this technique. With experience, there won’t be so much doubt.
The fish and carrots should be well cooked but not “to death”, the grain, fully soft and flavoured with the fish, carrots and stock. Sometimes i snip some chives onto the grain (and onto the fish, if i didn’t cut some on before cooking). Sometimes i put a little soy sauce on the grain, or some salsa picante if i have some in the ‘fridge. Garlic butter goes well with the fish, and rather well with the grain, especially if you’re not that fond of soy sauce.
If you cook this in a shallow pan, such as a stainless steel frying pan, you can eat it from that same pan if you’re eating alone. I prefer to use a plate. (I have a set of four French glass dinner plates and four “soup plates”, and prefer the soup plates [or my elongated stainless steel plate] to serve this meal.) With a large enough pot, i recommend you cook at least two portions (twice as much as you’ll eat alone, or more) even if you’re by yourself. Cold steamed salmon with dill and chive is delicious; the carrots and grain are also quite pleasant eaten cold.–and there’s no law against reheating them.
There are four main ways to cook salmon: Grilled, fried, steamed, and baked. Steaming is the easiest for a man eating alone, because he can cook fish, carrots, and grain in one pot. Grilling is partway to smoking, especially over a wood fire that is more coals than flames; it involves more work, grilled salmon is delicious cold, and you should plan to grill as much as your firebox will “do.” Frying is a fine way to cook stronger flavoured fishes, and is quite good for cod and pink salmon too; baking fish, i think of as belonging to the cooks who have several people at table, nearly every meal.
Also, more people, men and women, believe they know how to fry fish, than are comfortable steaming it. Steaming is if anything healthier than frying, though if you use canola oil to fry it, not much so8. I might get time to post a fried salmon or fried fish blog, later in the fall.
You’re best off being able to alternate among steaming, frying, and grilling—if you’re fortunate enough to have that much salmon. I’ve started with steaming because it’s new to more men; because you can cook a whole good meal with less work by steaming, than by frying, grilling, or baking; because pink salmon has been abundant this September and much less expensive than the other species; and because the technique adapts well to cod and haddock which are more available in the other seasons.
It’s the way i most often cook pink salmon—and cod, and haddock—myself.
1. I recommend having an apple with sausage soup, because most sausage is fairly high in saturated fat, and i’ve read that apples help keep saturated fat from becoming cholesterol deposits in your blood vessels.
2. There are very mild flavoured fishes, like goberge [pollock] that are better cooked in salsa-picante than steamed or smoked. These mildest flavoured fishes will steam and be good, but to my taste, are better with a sauce.
Almost all kinds of fish are good fried; and better covered lightly with flour or breadcrumbs. Bacon fat seems to go well for frying almost any kind of fish—but not necessarily ham fat.
3. Good gardeners should have tomatoes either still in the garden, or picked greenish and ripening indoors in a cool room or the garage; and some chives left in good condition. Very good gardeners should have a fall planting of lettuce near its prime. Thus, i tend to make a lettuce and tomato salad with a sprinkling of chive, to go with this meal.
4. Like my Acadian friend Smitty, i prefer cod ahead of haddock because “it has more of a sea taste”. That’s a personal preference.
5. I’m usually too “cheap” to use wine, but if a bottle has been sitting in the fridge for several days since it was opened, i might well use it for steaming. If beer goes flat, saving it for cooking stock [in my humble opinion] is better than either drinking it flat or pouring it down the drain. And as a home beer and wine maker, i’ve saved the water from rinsing the bottles (which i do soon after i empty them, for easy sterilizing and refilling later on), and boiled vegetable trimmings in it to make stock.
6. It should be chopped very fine (or browned lightly in canola oil or bacon fat before it goes on the fish, in which case it can be added when the fish is already cooked.)
7. If you boil the stock very hard, you might boil away enough of it that too little remains to cook the grain to the softness it should have.
8. I prefer bacon—not ham—fat for frying fish, when i have some saved in the ‘fridge. It is possible, and OK, to put a little bacon fat in with as much or more canola oil. Don’t use olive oil; from my limited experience and what i hear from professional cooks, it doesn’t perform well at temperatures high enough to brown the surface of a piece of fish—or meat.