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Steamed Up

Turn your oven into an unconventional steamer with a little packet of foil.

steamed cod fillet
(Styling by Sheryl Julian and Julie Riven / Photograph by Jim Scherer)

Julie was in a Chinatown restaurant recently and ordered a steamed whole fish. It arrived bathed in fresh ginger and soy sauce and was so moist and succulent that she wanted to make it at home right away. On an ordinary stovetop, however, steaming a whole fish is cumbersome indeed. Short of hauling out an old wok and setting a bamboo steamer in it or pulling her French fish poacher out of cold storage, there seemed to be no easy way to accomplish the task. Nor is it easy to find a whole fish in the marketplace. And so we decided that a hot oven would do the job and that we would use fillets of fish instead. To trap the steam and retain the fish's natural juices, we used heavy-duty foil to make individual packets and cranked the oven up to a very hot setting. Once the fish was done, we drizzled the pieces with the gingery soy mixture the Chinese cooks had used on the whole fish. And we got the same flaky morsels, or very nearly. Close enough to add the dish to our permanent repertoire.


White fish (halibut, pollock) or shellfish (shrimp, scallops) can be steamed in the foil packet, as can a rich fish such as salmon. All can be served with the ginger-scallion sauce in this recipe. Or saute two pints of halved cherry tomatoes in olive oil with salt and pepper and spoon the tomatoes over the fish before steaming. Either topping goes well with the fish and long-grain white rice.

Peanut oil (for the foil)
2 pounds skinless boneless cod, cut into
4 pieces
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1-inch piece ginger, cut into fine matchsticks
6 scallions, cut on the diagonal into
1/2-inch pieces
4 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil
1 cup long-grain white rice, cooked until tender

Set the oven at 450 degrees. Have on hand a rimmed baking sheet.

Set 4 12-by-12-inch pieces of heavy-duty foil, shiny side up, on a counter. Rub the center of each piece of foil with peanut oil.

Place a piece of cod, skinned side up, on each piece of foil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. With your fingers, spread 1 tablespoon of the peanut oil to coat the top of all the fish. Seal the packets and set them on the baking sheet.

Transfer the sheet to the hot oven and cook the packets for 15 minutes.

When the cod is almost cooked, set a small skillet on a burner. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. When it is very hot, add the ginger and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute or until it is fragrant.

Add the scallions, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Swirl the mixture over very low heat just to warm it through.

Place a helping of rice in each of 4 large shallow bowls and, using a spatula to transfer the fish from the foil packet, set the fish on the rice and spoon the juices from the foil over the fillets. Spoon the warm ginger mixture on top of the fillets and serve at once.


The foil steaming technique also works with tender poultry, such as chicken breasts, here cooked with the French duxelles, a paste of finely chopped mushrooms with garlic.

3/4 pound mixed mushrooms (crimini, shiitake, and oyster), stems removed
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons heavy cream
Extra canola oil (for the foil)
4 skinless boneless chicken breasts
(6 to 8 ounces each)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Set the oven at 450 degrees. Have on hand a rimmed baking sheet.

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, pulse the mushrooms until they are coarsely chopped.

In a skillet, heat the oil. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, over medium heat, for 1 minute. Add the mushrooms, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. When the mushrooms release their liquid, turn up the heat and continue cooking, stirring often, until all the excess moisture evaporates from the pan.

Stir in the thyme and cream.

Set 4 12-by-12-inch pieces of heavy-duty foil, shiny side up, on a counter. Rub the center of each piece with oil. Place a piece of chicken, skinned side up, on each piece. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Divide the mushrooms among the chicken pieces, spreading the mushrooms on top. Seal the packets and set them on the baking sheet.

Transfer the sheet to the hot oven and cook the packets for 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through (it will spring back when pressed in the center).

Remove the chicken from the packets and set the pieces on each of 4 dinner plates. Spoon mushrooms and juices from the foil on top. Sprinkle with parsley and serve at once with penne or other small pasta.

ASK THE COOKS: Timeless Tools

My grandmother, who died two years ago at 103, passed on many of her well-used and still usable kitchen utensils. However, many of them, especially the choppers, appear rusty. I have used them without any negative effect on the food, but I am wondering if you have any suggestions for what I can do to "refinish" them?

MARCIA S. HUBELBANK /// Jamaica Plain

Many vintage cooking utensils maintain their utility from generation to generation. The most visible signs of wear from gentle use are small problems like moderate rusting or the dulling of an edge. It is very likely that your kitchen tools are tinned or nickel-plated, which is to say, a thin coating of rustproof metal was added to harder metal forms.

You can scour with steel wool to remove rust, but this will take away even more of the soft coating. Try washing the tools before use, then drying them with a cloth that has been dipped into vegetable oil. After use, follow the same procedure. The oil will create a barrier to air and moisture, preventing further rust, without affecting the flavor of your food.

If you find this too tedious, our research showed that antique utensils are highly collectible and may even be valuable. Decorators furnish retro kitchens using tools as objects of art. In one case, a kitchen Christmas tree sported vintage utensils in place of ornaments. Since kitchen space is always at a premium, you may want to choose a few pieces to preserve family memories and donate, sell, or consign the rest to another family or a collector to put to good use.

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