Not that long ago if you’d asked the average American if he’d like a little raw fish for dinner, he would have eyed you askance and questioned your sanity. Now, of course, sushi is a supermarket staple. But despite the popularity of sushi and sashimi, the sheer simplicity of Japanese cooking continues to be eyed with suspicion. Offer someone a dish of steamed chicken, and they are very likely to refuse. Steamed chicken is not a beautiful dish, and it sounds like it’s too good for you to actually be good.
But if you steam a chicken right, you end up with flesh so smooth, soft and tender it seems to have turned into some other animal, with a refined and subtle flavor. It is the easiest dish you’ll ever make. And among the most elegant. But there are a few things to know.
1. You want to use a gentle liquor that will tenderize the bird and infuse it with flavor without overwhelming it. Sake is perfect.
2. You need to begin with a good chicken, one that has real flavor. There is nothing here to disguise the taste the bird was born with.
3. Salt the chicken well, inside and out, before putting it on the steaming rack.
4. Don’t overcook the chicken. Depending on the size of your bird, begin checking at about 50 minutes. Unless you’re using a very large chicken, it should be done in under an hour.
5. This is the most important point: After steaming your chicken, allow it to relax in the steamer, with the heat off, until it is cool (20 to 30 minutes). If you take it right out of the steamer the flesh will seize, get tough and ruin everything.
6. You can make a ginger-scallion sauce for the chicken, or simply serve it with ponzu or soy sauce. Or you can reduce the liquid in the steamer and pour it over the chicken. In this case, less is more.
7. This chicken is, if possible, even more succulent, more delicious cold on the following day.
1 organic chicken
Salt, to taste
1½ cups sake
1½ cups water
1 bunch scallions
1 1” piece ginger, sliced
Clean and salt chicken: Rinse your chicken, dry it well, and salt it generously inside and out. Cut scallions in 2” pieces. Stuff about half of them in the bird with about half the ginger slices.
Prep steamer: Mix the sake with the water. Put a steamer inside a large casserole with a tight cover. (If you don’t have a steamer, a colander will do.) Pour in enough of the sake/water mixture so that it just reaches the bottom of the steamer. Add the remaining ginger and scallion to the liquid.
Steam chicken: Put the chicken on the steamer basket, breast-side up. Bring the liquid to a boil, cover the pot, turn the heat down to a simmer and steam gently. Check after about 20 minutes on the level of the liquid – if it’s already low, top off with some water.
Finish cooking: At 50 minutes, check for doneness by making a cut in the breast and checking that the meat is no longer red and the juices run clear. If not, steam for a few more minutes.
Rest, and serve: Allow the chicken to rest in the covered pot, with the heat off, for about half an hour before serving. Serve with ginger scallion sauce, excellent soy sauce, or ponzu.