Steamed Fish Filets with Tarragon Butter There's a lot of flexibility in the fish you can use. Cod (shown) works well, along with trout, halibut, sole or striped bass
Steamed Fish Filets with Tarragon Butter

Want to see a look of eager anticipation disappear from the faces of the people for whom you're cooking dinner? Tell them you're making them steamed fish filets for the first time.

But tell those very people the same news after they've tried steamed fish filets as I'll teach you how to make them, and they'll be excited and eager to sit down to your dinner table.

Steaming gets an undeservedly bad reputation in some cooking circles. For too many people, it instantly makes people think of the sort of bland, flavorless food prepared for people on some sort of restricted diet or another.

But that doesn't have to be the case. Steaming is, in fact, an ideal way to cook delicate fish filets that might otherwise fall apart or dry out if you try to saute, grill, or roast them. And it has one big advantage over another moist cooking method, poaching: instead of having flavor leave the fish and enter the cooking water, steam allows all of the flavor to stay inside the fish.

In fact, smart steaming can add flavor to fish filets. Use wine along with water, add some lively seasonings and a touch of butter or oil for richness, and the fish will take on their personality. Better still, some of the steaming liquid can then be reduced to concentrate its flavors -- and then enriched, if you like, with some butter and cream -- to make a sensational sauce for the finished dish.

In the recipe I share here for classic French-style steamed fish, fresh tarragon and shallots flavor the steaming liquid and final sauce. But you could also use other seasonings such as onions, garlic, fresh or dried chilies, or fresh ginger root, and herbs such as parsley, chervil, thyme, or dill, to vary the final results to your own tastes.

There's a lot of flexibility in the fish you use, too. Pacific wild-caught sole, Pacific cod from Alaska, wild-caught Alaskan halibut, and U.S. farmed or wild-caught striped bass all work well, and you could also substitute richer, more flavorful fish such as wild-caught Alaskan salmon or farmed rainbow or golden trout from the U.S. The most important thing is that you start with the freshest fish available in your seafood market and that you choose varieties that are sustainable.

And don't feel you have to finish off the fish, as my recipe does, with an ultra-rich butter sauce. Instead, whisk a little bit of the reduced cooking liquid into a light vinaigrette dressing to spoon over the fish; or make a loose pesto sauce with lots of fresh basil; or drizzle it with a mixture of soy sauce, rice vinegar, grated ginger, and chopped green onions.

Or serve the steamed fish accompanied with just a squeeze of lemon. After all, we now know how delicious steamed fish filets can be plain and simple on their own!

Steamed Fish with Tarragon Butter

Serves 6

6 filets of mild white-fleshed fish such as sole or cod (see suggestions above), 6 to 8 ounces each

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons minced fresh tarragon leaves, plus 3 sprigs fresh tarragon and a few extra whole leaves for garnish

24 to 30 large organic spinach leaves, thoroughly rinsed and patted dry with paper towels, stems removed

2 cups water

2 cups dry white wine

2 medium shallots, finely chopped

1 stalk organic celery, thinly sliced

1 pound unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, plus 1 tablespoon butter and a little extra butter for greasing the steamer

1/2 cup heavy organic cream

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Season the fish filets on both sides with 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and 1 tablespoon minced tarragon. Wrap each fillet in 4 or 5 spinach leaves.

In the bottom half of a steamer, combine the water, wine, shallots, celery, tarragon sprigs, and the 1 tablespoon of butter. Bring to a boil over high heat.

Meanwhile, with a little extra butter, evenly grease the steamer rack. Evenly arrange the fish filets on the rack, leaving some space between them.

Reduce the heat to maintain a steady simmer and place the steamer rack over the pan of liquid. Cover the steamer rack and cook the fish until slightly underdone, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer the steamer rack to a large platter or plate and cover loosely with foil to keep the fish warm.

To make the sauce, pour about one fourth of the liquid from the bottom of the steam into a medium saucepan and boil briskly until it has reduced to about 1/2 cup, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the cream and continue boiling until about 3/4 cup remains.

Reduce the heat to very low. Whisking continuously, add the butter a piece at a time until melted and incorporated, taking care to adjust the heat so the sauce never gets too hot or too cold. As soon as the last of the butter has been whisked in, pour the sauce through a fine-meshed strainer set over a warmed sauce bowl. Stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon minced tarragon and adjust the seasonings to taste with lemon juice and the remaining salt and pepper.

With a spatula, carefully transfer the spinach-wrapped fish filets to warmed serving plates. Spoon the sauce over and around the fish and garnish with a few whole tarragon leaves. Serve immediately.


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Steamed Fish Filets with Tarragon Butter Recipe

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