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Once you've perfected basic techniques like frying an egg and cooking rice, it's time to move on to those things that may have initially scared you off. Every other Monday, chef and stylist Camille Becerra is going beyond the basics to help us tackle even the scariest cooking techniques.
Today: How to master the art of poaching fish.
As a chef tournant -- the title for a trained chef in a big kitchen who is capable of moving around from station to station at a drop of a hat -- I learned that I was always happiest when I was assigned to the fish station.
Poaching is an extremely gentle cooking method that allows you to exercise the two traits needed in fish cookery: a vigilant eye and a delicate hand. The reward of mastering this technique is a succulent texture that only fish can provide.
I’d also like to note that because this cooking process is a fairly slow one, it allows you to understand how a piece of fish goes from raw to perfectly cooked. Peek in every so often and give it a touch to check its firmness; this will help you become more confident cooking fish with quicker methods using higher temperatures.
Court bouillon, bouquet garni, and cartouche are all French culinary terms you will want to know and learn if you don’t already. Court bouillon is the flavorful poaching liquid you will use to cook your fish. Traditionally, a court bouillon is equal parts water to white wine, usually just enough to cover the fish, with the addition of an acid like lemon or vinegar. A bouquet garni (a bundle of herbs tied together with string) and a good pinch of salt are added for even more flavor. Always taste to guarantee that your poaching liquid is well seasoned and delicious. The addition of other aromatic ingredients like hard spices, chili, onion, fennel, and tomato is of course allowed, and can only help in making your court bouillon that much more flavorful.
Lastly a cartouche should be made, which is a piece of parchment cut to the size of your pan. This ensures that the liquid in the court bouillon does not evaporate too quickly.
Here's how to do it:
Heat your water, wine, bouquet garni, and whatever acid and aromatics you are using. Simmer on low for 10 minutes so that the flavors develop.
Cut fish into 5- to 6-ounce pieces, season generously with salt, and allow them to come to room temperature -- this will take approximately 5 to 10 minutes.
Cut your cartouche.
Add fish to the simmering court bouillon. Set your timer for 6 minutes. Once the time is up turn off the heat, remove the cartouche, and allow your fish to sit in the court bouillon for an additional minute or two. Remove the fish carefully from the court bouillon with a wide metal spatula.
You can strain the court bouillon and reduce it a bit then whisk in pieces of cold butter, which will give you a delicate sauce called nage. Or simply serve with a drizzle with good oil, like extra-virgin olive oil or better yet, mustard seed oil for a spicy kick.
Photos by Emma Jane Kepley