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California Steaming

June 10, 1993|FAYE LEVY

Many of us use a steamer to cook vegetables, but not as many realize that the same steamer is also great for cooking fish. Steaming fish is a classic Chinese technique that has become popular in contemporary French cuisine. While the Chinese often steam whole fish, in France it is usually the fillet that is steamed. Usually the French use delicate fish such as sole or sea bass and spoon vinaigrette or another light-textured sauce over the fillets.

Whether the fish is served hot or cold, it is absolutely delicious. Fish retains more of its pure, natural taste when steamed because it is not immersed in liquid. For healthful menus, steaming is an ideal cooking method, as the fish remains moist without the addition of fat. It is perfect for low-calorie seafood salads.

Steaming is simple. All you need to do is sprinkle the fish with a little salt and pepper, set it in the steamer top above boiling water, cover and steam briefly. Steaming fish fillets is a fast process and is well suited to quick and easy home cooking. Thin fillets and scallops cook in two to three minutes. You can also steam fish steaks and shrimp. The technique is better suited to white, subtly flavored fish than to robust fish such as shark or tuna.

Any type of steamer that holds the fish above the water works fine. Fish should be steamed in a single layer; if the fillets are piled up, they cook unevenly, stick to each other and are difficult to separate. With shrimp and scallops this is less important; although these will steam more evenly in a single layer, if that's not possible stir a few times as they steam.

Sole and other thin fillets taste good when sprinkled with herbs and folded in half before steaming. The herbs lightly season the fish, and the folding in half makes it easier to transfer them from the steamer to the plate. Some chefs like to steam fish on a bed of mint leaves or basil sprigs for extra flavor.

Accompaniments are best left simple--a tangy vinaigrette, a fresh salsa that's not too spicy or a sprinkling of herb-flavored oil. Steamed new potatoes are an ever-popular partner for the seafood; they should be steamed before the fish, then covered and kept warm. If there's room in the steamer, steam some quick-cooking vegetables such as zucchini strips, spinach leaves or sugar snap peas alongside the fish.

Although freshness is always important when choosing fish, in the case of steaming it is essential. There's no charring or frying, and there are no acidic poaching liquids to mask an undesirable aroma. The true taste of the seafood really does come through, so steam only the best-quality, freshest fish.

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Flounder or any members of the sole family can be used in this light, colorful dish. If possible, use extra - virgin olive oil for the dressing.

STEAMED SOLE WITH MUSHROOMS, PEPPERS AND SAGE VINAIGRETTE 6 ounces small mushrooms 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 1 sweet red pepper, cut into 1/2-inch dice 1 small green pepper, cut into 1/2-inch dice Salt Freshly ground black pepper 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar or herb vinegar 3 tablespoons minced sage leaves 1 1/4 pounds sole fillets 1/4 cup chopped green onions 2 large cloves garlic, minced

Remove mushroom stems and reserve for other use. Thinly slice mushroom caps.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, sweet red and green peppers and salt and pepper to taste. Saute until vegetables are just tender, about 7 minutes. Set aside.

Combine remaining 3 tablespoons oil in small bowl along with vinegar, 2 tablespoons minced sage, and salt and pepper to taste. Whisk vinaigrette until blended.

Run fingers over fillets and remove bones, using tweezers or sharp paring knife. Sprinkle sole on both sides to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle lightly with about 1/2 tablespoon sage. Fold each fillet in half and sprinkle top with remaining sage.

Set sole in top portion of steamer over boiling water. Cover and cook over high heat until fillets become opaque, about 2 minutes. Transfer to platter and keep warm.

Reheat vegetables over medium heat. Stir in green onions and garlic. Cook 1 minute. Transfer fish to plates, discarding liquid from platter. Scatter vegetables over and around fish. Whisk vinaigrette and spoon over fish. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about: 272 calories; 163 mg sodium; 51 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 6 grams carbohydrates; 22 grams protein; 0.63 grams fiber.

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\o7 You can serve the fish either warm or cool for this salad. If the fish doesn't fit in one layer in the steamer, steam it in two batches. If you like, garnish each portion of this simple but elegant salad with a few steamed shrimp or cherry tomatoes.

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