In a world where bold flavor is king, the traditional technique of poaching chicken or fish seems to have fallen off the radar. The words that tended to surface during a Google search of the term seems to be “bland,” “low-fat” and once even “poaching= ew.” I’ll even admit to a personal prejudice, mentally associating poached salmon with little old ladies garden clubs and poached chicken with watery chicken salad. But that was before I tried it myself.
If you’ve read anything about the sous vide technique, you know that maintaining the lowest necessary temperature to safely cook the protein allows the meat to become tender without the heat squeezing the natural moisture out. Poaching, while less precise and certainly lower tech, can also serve to steep the meat in a flavored liquid at a sufficiently low temperature to keep the meat tender and juicy. It also adds no fat, poaching liquid being water flavored with aromatic vegetables and herb and acidulated with wine, vinegar or lemon juice.
The first thing to do is to flavor your poaching liquid, often called a court bouillon. Here is a simple version I poached my salmon filets in tonight:
1 ½ cups water
½ cup white wine
½ rib celery, sliced
1 small carrot, peeled and sliced
2-3 slices lemon
1 sprig tarragon
4 stalks of chives or onion, chopped into sections
½ teaspoon salt
Bring everything to a simmer in a small saucepan and cook over low heat for 10 minutes or so until the liquid is infused with the flavors of the aromatics. After it is used, it can be strained and frozen to reuse several times.
With court bouillon at the ready, prepare the salmon filets, rinsing, drying, and check for bones that may need to be removed. The salmon should be just submerged under the liquid, so use a pot or pan that is as close to the size and depth of the fish as you can find. Heat the liquid in the pan just until it shivers, bubbles just breaking the surface. Slide the fish into the court bouillon and bring it back to that barely pre-simmer stage and then cook it for about 5 minutes per half-inch of thickness. When it is done, remove it from the heat. The salmon can be left in the poaching liquid to keep warm while any other tasks are completed.
If the low-fat health benefits of poaching don’t appeal to you, I encourage you to anoint the salmon with a pat of compound butter, homemade dill mayonnaise, or Hollandaise sauce.
We’re having it unadorned tonight, a simple and satisfying Spring supper with asparagus and roast new potatoes doused in warm mustard vinaigrette. The salmon is rich and buttery, subtly infused with tarragon and lemon. I think it’s about time poaching made a comeback.