A FORGIVING WAY TO COOK A NEARLY FOOLPROOF FISH
Salmon has become America’s favorite fish because it’s relatively cheap and easy to cook (all that fat makes it hard to mess things up). Poaching would seem like the ideal way to prepare salmon. It’s fast and there’s no splattering oil or strong odors to permeate the house. And because it relies on gentle moist heat, poaching should highlight salmon’s irresistibly supple, velvety texture.
But the classic French technique for poaching fish makes no sense at home. In restaurants, an entire side of salmon (weighing several pounds) is poached in a highly flavorful broth called a court bouillon. The poached fish is removed from the broth and served with a separately prepared sauce. The broth can be saved to poach fish the next day.
At home, this approach is plain crazy. No one wants to spend time building flavor in a broth that is never served. And very few people want to poach an entire side of salmon. We reinvented this recipe so that the poaching liquid becomes a sauce for four servings of fish.
Our recipe starts out with 1 cup of liquid, not quarts of broth. Besides being practical, we think this method produces superior results. Poaching in a pot of broth causes flavor to leach out of the fish. (That’s why the court bouillon must be so fortified—it has to add something back to the fish.) Our shallow-poach method relies on a fraction of the typical liquid so flavor loss is minimized.
But with so little liquid in the pan how do you prevent the fish from cooking unevenly? A clever use of lemon slices along with a hefty portion of wine ensures that the top and bottom of the fish cook at the same rate. Talk about American ingenuity.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Buy One Fillet
Although it is easiest to cook individual servings of fish, it’s preferable to buy a single piece of salmon fillet and then cut those pieces yourself. If the pieces come from the same side of fish, they will be the same thickness and that means they will cook at the same rate.
A Lift from Lemons
To keep the bottom of the fillets from overcooking due to direct contact with the skillet, we place them on top of a single layer of lemon slices for insulation. (The acidity of the lemon also helps balances the richness of the salmon.) Scattering minced shallot and parsley and tarragon stems over the slices adds more flavor to the cooking liquid.
Wine and Steam
Because the salmon isn’t totally submerged as it cooks, it relies on steam to deliver heat. But water at a subsimmer (necessary to keep the fish from falling apart) doesn’t generate much steam. The solution? Cut the water with some wine. The alcohol lowers the boiling temperature of the water; the higher the concentration of alcohol, the more vapor will be produced as the liquid is heated. More steam ensures that the portion of each fillet that is above the liquid cooks just as quickly as the fish that is submerged, even at temperatures below a simmer. And the wine improves the flavor of the poaching liquid, too.
Turn Liquid into Sauce
While the resting cooked salmon drains and firms up, reduce the poaching liquid to 2 tablespoons. This concentrates its flavor and provides the perfect foundation for making just the right amount of sauce to serve with the salmon. Straining the reduced liquid (which is used as the “vinegar”) and adding it to some olive oil, chopped capers, parsley, tarragon, and honey creates an easy light and fresh vinaigrette-style sauce.
A bed of lemon slices and herb stems shields the salmon from the hot pan and adds flavor.
Poached Salmon with Herb and Caper Vinaigrette
- 10 minutes to prep ingredients
- 20 minutes to cook salmon and make sauce
- 12-inch skillet with lid
- Instant-read thermometer to gauge doneness of fish
- Thin, wide spatula to transfer fish
- Fine-mesh strainer to strain reduced cooking liquid
Substitutions & Variations
- To ensure uniform pieces of salmon that cook at the same rate, buy a whole center-cut fillet and cut it into four pieces. If a skinless whole fillet is unavailable, remove the skin yourself or follow the recipe as directed with skin-on fillets, adding 3 to 4 minutes to the cooking time in step 2. Once rested, gently slide a thin, wide spatula between the flesh and skin and use the fingers of your free hand to help separate the skin. It should peel off easily and in one piece.
This recipe will yield salmon fillets cooked to medium-rare.
- 2 lemons
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, stems reserved
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon, stems reserved
- 1 large shallot, minced
- ½ cup dry white wine
- ½ cup water
- 1 (1¾- to 2-pound) skinless salmon fillet, about 1½ inches thick
- 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and chopped
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon honey
- Salt and pepper
- Line plate with paper towels. Cut top and bottom off 1 lemon, then cut into eight to ten ¼-inch-thick slices. Cut remaining lemon into 8 wedges and set aside. Arrange lemon slices in single layer across bottom of 12-inch skillet. Scatter herb stems and 2 tablespoons shallot evenly over lemon slices. Add wine and water to skillet.
- Use sharp knife to remove any whitish fat from belly of salmon and cut fillet into 4 equal pieces. Place salmon fillets in skillet, skinned side down, on top of lemon slices. Set pan over high heat and bring liquid to simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until center of fillets is still translucent when checked with tip of paring knife, or until fillets register 125 degrees (for medium-rare), 11 to 16 minutes. Remove pan from heat and, using spatula, carefully transfer salmon and lemon slices to prepared plate and tent loosely with aluminum foil.
- Return pan to high heat and simmer cooking liquid until slightly thickened and reduced to 2 tablespoons, 4 to 5 minutes. Meanwhile, combine capers, oil, honey, chopped parsley and tarragon, and remaining shallot in medium bowl. Strain reduced cooking liquid through fine-mesh strainer into bowl with herb mixture, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Whisk to combine and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Using spatula, carefully lift and tilt salmon fillets to remove lemon slices. Place salmon on serving platter or individual plates and spoon vinaigrette over top. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve, passing lemon wedges separately.
POACHED SALMON WITH DILL AND SOUR CREAM SAUCE
Substitute 8 to 12 dill stems for parsley and tarragon stems and omit capers, honey, and olive oil. Strain cooking liquid through fine-mesh strainer into medium bowl; discard solids. Return strained liquid to skillet; whisk in 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard and remaining 2 tablespoons shallot. Simmer over high heat until slightly thickened and reduced to 2 tablespoons, 4 to 5 minutes. Whisk in 2 tablespoons sour cream and juice from 1 reserved lemon wedge; simmer 1 minute. Remove from heat; whisk in 2 tablespoons minced fresh dill fronds. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Continue with recipe from step 4, spooning sauce over salmon before serving.
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