Once upon a time there was a great cooking method that was acclaimed far and wide for its ability to healthfully cook food rendering it moist, tender and delectable and… then everyone forgot about it. That method would be poaching. It requires a pot of flavored water and a protein like chicken or salmon to put into it and simmer it for a surprisingly short period of time and…that is about it.
One might wonder…what exactly is poaching? and what is this simmering you speak of? I know only boil… Right, poaching and simmering are like weak boiling. You can recognize boiling by large bubbles evolving from the bottom of a pot of water and briskly breaking on the surface causing great waves of turbulence in the pot. This is the correct way to cook pasta and that is about it. Most other foods that get cooked in water or water based sauce need to simmer which is much more gentle. Simmering is achieved at about 185°F – 200°F ( at sea level). At this temperature, the water moves visibly but the bubbles barely appear and the convection of the water is very gentle. I used to cater a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the old days and people would always rave about the corned beef announcing that they could not cook a brisket to save their lives. I would ask how they cooked it and they would always say they boiled it. The secret is to turn the heat down just a bit and simmer the beef until it is tender. The corned beef slices easily and is very tender but holds together so that it slices beautifully without shredding.
Enough talk of beef, I came to talk about something that is great served cold over a refreshingly crisp salad. My first choice is salmon, but trout works well and so does chicken for those of you that don’t care for either of the fish choices. Naturally, many other items from the sea work well too: shrimp, scallops, lobster, bass, squid, halibut or any fish that will hold together in the water will work. Many people make the mistake of boiling these items which usually produces an overcooked flesh that has lost much of its flavor and precious omega-3 fatty acids. I suppose the reason is that boiling is easy, it requires only that you turn the burner on full and let ‘er rip. It is true, simmering and poaching require more attention and finesse, but the results are worth it.
First make a “court bouillon” which is nothing more than a flavorful poaching liquid.
The recipe is simple:
- ½ cup of dry white wine (like chardonnay)
- ½ cup good vinegar (I often use cider vinegar for its interesting flavor)
- 1 rib of celery roughly chopped
- 1 onion quartered
- 1 carrot, thinly sliced
- 2 cloves
- 1 bay leaf
- 10 black pepper corns
- 1 Tbsp of Sea Salt
- 1 clove of garlic
- 6 cups of water
Assemble all of these ingredients in a pot big enough to hold all of these ingredients and the fish. Bring them to a boil and reduce the heat to barely simmering.
At this point the court bouillon is ready for the addition of the fish. I like to portion the fish into nice fillets, but steaks work well. If you have a salmon poacher you could poach the whole fish which will take a lot longer to cook, but will make a spectacular presentation at the table. I suggest you taste the court bouillon and adjust the seasoning if you think it needs more. It should have a distinct aromatic flavor but not be overpowering, add water if it is too strong.
Add the fish and simmer for about 7 minutes in the case of salmon fillets that are an inch or less in thickness. There is a rule of thumb that says you need to poach an item 10 minutes for every inch of thickness. Slightly undercooked fish is not a problem, but in the case of chicken it is advisable to check the thickest piece with a thermometer. Chicken is done when it reaches 165°F. Chill the item in the refrigerator for 2 hours or until ready to serve. This allows all of the proteins to gel nicely producing a rich, moist texture and delicate but distinctive flavor.
I served the salmon with a cucumber dill yogurt sauce:
- 1 cup of Greek style yogurt
- ½ cup English cucumber, diced
- ¼ cup diced onion
- 1 small clove of garlic, mashed
- juice of 1/2 lemon (2 Tbsp more or less, to taste)
- ½ tsp good salt
- ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 Tbsp fresh chopped dill
Mix all ingredients thoroughly. This can be made 1 day ahead.
I like to poach the chicken or fish in the morning when the kitchen is still cool. When dinner time arrives it is a simple matter to throw a salad together and serve this perfect summer dish. Enjoy!