Here’s how to make steamed fish without a recipe, with any vegetables you like or have on hand—a foolproof, versatile technique with a built-in side dish.
1. Choose a skillet and heat some fat. The pan should have a tight-fitting lid and be large enough to accommodate all the vegetables and the fish, but not so big that the vegetables can’t cover the bottom in a solid layer. Put 2 or more tablespoons oil or butter in the skillet over medium-high heat.
2. Prepare vegetables. Start with aromatics, then choose one or more main vegetables. Watery vegetables like greens, zucchini, and fresh tomatoes will release liquid and help the steaming process. Starchier vegetables like potatoes will not, so you’ll have to add a splash of liquid later.
3. Sauté vegetables. For soft vegetables, cook until they are almost fully tender. In the time that it takes to steam the fish the vegetables will become soft. For vegetables you want barely tender, sauté until they’re still slightly too firm to eat. Add enough water to keep them from sticking.
4. Check your liquid level. If vegetable juices are bubbling in the bottom of the skillet, don’t add any extra liquid. Otherwise, add a splash. If you want something more like a stew, add enough liquid to make the vegetables saucy.
5. Add your fish. Thick fish fillets, shrimp, clams, and mussels are ideal steamed—they cook quickly, and stay moist (This is also a great way to cook boneless chicken.) Figure 1 to 2 pounds. Lay them on top of the vegetables, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cover the skillet.
6. Steam, garnish, and serve. Steam until the fish is just cooked through, carefully checking every now and then and adding more liquid if needed. When the fish is cooked, the vegetables will be too. To serve, scoop up some vegetables and fish onto a plate, then drizzle with the pan juices.
Photos by Emma Baar-Bittman