The world's oceans play host to a startlingly diverse range of food species, from tiny shrimp and anchovies to massive tunas. Preparation methods for seafoods vary as widely as the fish and shellfish themselves, but some are more universal than others. Steaming is one of the most widely universal techniques, lending itself equally well to delicate fish fillets or large, hard-shelled lobster and crab.
The crustaceans, the family of armored 10-limbed creatures that includes lobsters, langoustines, crawfish, shrimp and crabs, lend themselves to many different preparation methods, but they're at their most dramatic steamed whole. You need at least 1 to 2 inches of water in the bottom of your pot, but it shouldn't reach the steamer basket. Bring it to a vigorous boil, then fill the steamer basket loosely with the shellfish and cover the pot. Shrimp take as little as 2 or 3 minutes, while a 2-pound lobster can take 18 minutes. Frozen crab legs usually come pre-cooked, and they need just 6 minutes to reheat if thawed or up to 10 if still frozen.
Lobster and crab may be the rock stars of the seafood world, but other shellfish are equally good when steamed. Clams, cockles and mussels can all be prepared in much the same way as crustaceans, steamed for just a few minutes until the shells open. Single-shell delicacies such as winkles and whelks protrude slightly from the opening of their shells when done, with winkles taking just 3 to 5 minutes and whelks taking 10 to 15. For a more flavorful approach, steam these shellfish in a shallow pan with aromatic vegetables and just enough broth or wine to cover the bottom. Once they open, the cooking liquid becomes a quick and flavorful sauce.
Small whole fish and fillets aren't as suited to steaming as shellfish, because in the absence of an armor-clad exterior, they're fragile once cooked. They're best steamed in shallow baskets. Chinese bamboo steamers are ideal, but you can improvise a steamer simply by placing a wire rack or shallow colander in a skillet or saucepan. Bring broth, wine or another aromatic liquid to a gentle simmer beneath the rack, then arrange your fish or fillet portions over top. After a relatively few minutes -- 6 to 10 minutes per inch of thickness -- lift out the fish with a broad spatula.
An alternative form of steaming wraps seafood in foil or parchment paper, where it cooks in its own juices. This technique, called cooking "en papillote," is especially suited to mild-tasting fish and shellfish, because it preserves their delicate flavor. If you wish, you can complement that flavor by adding judicious amounts of broth, wine, butter, olive oil, citrus juice, spices or fresh herbs. Wrap the seafood and its flavorings in parchment, creasing the edges to form an airtight seal. Arrange the packages on a sheet pan and bake them in a preheated 400 degree Fahrenheit oven for 12 to 18 minutes, until the parcels turn brown and puffy.
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