Some forms of cooking are all fire and sputtering grease, hissing steam and clanging pots. Poaching, on the other hand, is Zen. Witnessing the quiet drama of a raw egg transformed in a skillet of barely steaming water is like being present at the Creation. And with the egg's hidden treasure of liquid yolk, the finished package is pure poetry.
Cooking foods fully submerged in liquid far below the boiling point represents the calmer side of the kitchen. And I don't mean just eggs. A chicken poached in a tarragon-infused broth at 180 degrees emerges in a heightened state of juicy tenderness. A fillet of salmon poached just to the point of doneness is unrivaled for its silken smoothness. Loin of veal, a tenderloin of beef -- both shine after a quiet poach, and without any oily marinades or pretentious grill marks. A pear poached in a sweetened Burgundy, posing serenely on a white plate, makes a stunning display.
But poaching is not without its pitfalls. Poaching temperatures are so much lower than what we're used to when we grill, roast or fry that the cooking process is wonderfully unhurried and elongated. The perfect poaching temperature (180 degrees), however, is not easy to achieve. Since poaching temperatures fall well short of the boiling point (212 degrees at sea level) or even the simmer (around 205), most of our home equipment is not geared to this method. Look at the knob on your oven and you probably will see nothing listed in this range except "Warm." The stovetop dial is equally mute.
What's more, poaching liquids give few visible clues as to their actual temperature. Unlike the boil, which is unmistakably rowdy with its bubbling and roiling, a pan of water at 180 degrees is as inert as a pan of water at 120 (which will leave your food cold and your guests hungry).
So for poaching, it helps to have a reliable thermometer to measure the temperature of your poaching liquid. And it helps to know the behavior of your cooking surface to monitor and to make adjustments during the poaching process. If you put a pan of water on "high" to start, you certainly will want to reduce the heat at some point to maintain a temperature of 180 degrees.
Also, heavy pots and pans, such as iron or thick-gauge aluminum, work best for poaching because they retain heat more evenly. Otherwise, all you need is a little patience.
Poached Salmon Salad With Spring Vegetables
The pinnacle in poached seafood is a whole salmon served chilled and decorated with artfully cut cucumbers and sprigs of fresh dill, perhaps served under a layer of aspic. That requires an investment in special equipment: a fish poacher, an elongated pan fitted with a rack.
Smaller fillets can easily be poached in an ordinary skillet using an aromatic broth or court bouillon (a broth made from vegetables and herbs). Choose a thick fillet cut from the area closer to the head of the fish: the meat near the tail is thin and dries out easily. This recipe is adapted from "Chez Panisse Cooking," by Paul Bertolli and Alice Waters (Random House, 1994). Instead of flaking the salmon fillet, you may slice it into individual portions.
For the court bouillon:
1 small carrot, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
1/2 small onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup thinly sliced celery, preferably from the tender heart
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh parsley
2-by-2-inch piece lemon zest
3/4 teaspoon salt
41/2 cups water
3/4 cup dry white wine, preferably Sauvignon Blanc
11/2-pound center-cut salmon fillet, skin on
For the salad:
3 bunches scallions
3/4 cup shelled peas
6 stalks asparagus, ends trimmed, sliced on the diagonal into 2-inch pieces
3 handfuls tender young lettuces or salad mix, cleaned and dried
Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
For the salmon: To make the court bouillon, in a small saucepan combine all of the ingredients except the salmon and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, covered, for 20 minutes. Strain the court bouillon, discarding the solids. Set aside.
In a heavy skillet just large enough to hold the salmon fillet, heat the court bouillon to a gentle simmer. If desired, attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan or prop an instant-read thermometer in the pan with the dial propped against the side of the pan. It should register 200 degrees.
Carefully lower the salmon fillet into the liquid. The temperature of the water will plunge and it will cease to simmer. Heat the liquid until it returns to just below a simmer, 180 degrees, and adjust the heat to maintain this temperature. To keep the salmon submerged, it may be necessary to place a small weight, such as a lid from a small pan or an empty coffee mug, on top of the salmon. Cook the fish until it is opaque throughout and flakes easily, 12 to 13 minutes per inch of thickness. To test for doneness, use a paring knife to make a small incision in the fillet and inspect it visually.
Transfer the salmon to a plate and set aside to cool. (May cover and refrigerate for up to several hours.)
For the salad: Trim the scallions so that only the white parts remain. Remove the outer layers until only the inner, tender green shoots remain.
Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Have a bowl of ice water ready. Add the scallion shoots to the pot and boil for 11/2 minutes. Transfer to the ice water. Repeat the blanching process, first with the peas, then with the asparagus, cooking just until each is bright green and barely tender. Transfer to the ice water. Drain and set the vegetables aside.
Place the lettuces in a large bowl. Stir the vinaigrette to recombine. Drizzle the lettuce with half of the vinaigrette and toss gently to coat. Divide the lettuces among 6 chilled plates. Remove and discard the skin from the salmon. Flake the salmon into large chunks and divide it evenly among the plates. Place the scallions, peas and asparagus in a bowl, drizzle with the remaining vinaigrette and toss gently to coat. Divide the vegetables evenly among the plates. Serve immediately.
Per serving (including vinaigrette): 278 calories, 26 gm protein, 10 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 62 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 111 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber
1/2 cup peeled English (seedless) cucumber, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 large shallot, finely chopped
11/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
In a small bowl, stir together the cucumber, shallot, vinegar and a generous pinch of salt and pepper to taste until the salt has dissolved. Stir in the oil.
Per serving: 70 calories, trace protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 48 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
Poached Tarragon Chicken
This chicken was one of the first things I learned to cook, right after popcorn. It is adapted from Julia Child's seminal "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two" (Knopf, 1970).
It is a beautiful thing when dressed with its satiny tarragon sauce. Thank you, Julia. I serve it with the tarragon cream sauce along with rice and buttered peas, although it also works well without the sauce and simply shredded over salad.
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced
1/2 onion, thinly sliced
4- to 5-pound roasting chicken, including giblets
3 large sprigs tarragon
6 sprigs parsley
11/2 cups dry white wine
2 quarts (8 cups) chicken broth
Tarragon Cream Sauce (recipe follows)
In a heavy pot or Dutch oven just large enough to hold the chicken, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the carrot and onion and cook until tender, 5 to 7 minutes.
Meanwhile, rinse the chicken under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Remove and discard the liver. If desired, reserve the remaining giblets for the poaching liquid. Salt the bird inside and out. Place 1 sprig of tarragon inside the chicken.
When the carrot and onion are tender, add the chicken to the pot, breast-side up, along with the parsley and remaining sprigs of tarragon. Add the wine and broth. The liquid should nearly cover the bird. If desired, place the cheesecloth over the bird, allowing the sides of the cloth to fall into the cooking liquid. If desired, attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pot or place an instant-read thermometer in the pan with the dial propped against the side of the pan.
Place the lid on the pot, increase the heat to medium and heat the liquid until it is just below a simmer, or 180 degrees. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook at 180 degrees, adjusting the burner as necessary, until the chicken is cooked through, about 1 hour and 10 minutes. To check for doneness, insert meat thermometer deep into the chicken's thigh; the chicken is done when it registers 180 degrees.
Insert a heavy wooden spoon into the chicken's cavity, lift the chicken from the poaching liquid and transfer it to a cutting board. Tent some aluminum foil loosely around the chicken and set aside to rest for 15 minutes before serving. Strain the chicken cooking liquid, discarding any solids, and reserve for the Tarragon Cream Sauce or another use.
Carve the chicken into pieces and place on individual plates. Spoon the cream sauce over the chicken or pass it on the side.
Per serving (without cream sauce): 333 calories, 48 gm protein, trace carbohydrates, 13 gm fat, 149 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 211 mg sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber
Tarragon Cream Sauce
4 tablespoons butter
5 tablespoons flour
2 cups chicken cooking liquid reserved from Poached Tarragon Chicken, hot
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
Salt to taste
In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter but do not allow it to brown. Sprinkle the flour over the butter and cook, whisking constantly, for 3 minutes. Still whisking constantly, slowly add the hot cooking liquid in a stream until the liquid is completely incorporated and the mixture is smooth. Add the tarragon and cook, whisking constantly, for another minute or so. Whisk in the cream, lemon juice, pepper and salt to taste. If necessary, keep warm over low heat for several minutes.
Per serving: 192 calories, 3 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, 18 gm fat, 56 mg cholesterol, 11 gm saturated fat, 127 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber