Rules vary depending on the lawmakers; some claim that only fresh-water fish should be treated in court bouillon, salt-water fish being poached in salt water; furthermore, different court bouillons are often recommended for different fish. As far as I’m concerned, fresh fish of any sort is good poached in salt water; it is better if a bay leaf and a branch of thyme are added; and it is best if treated in a wine court bouillon, the specific proportions of the ingredients not being important. Onion, thyme, bay, white wine, and water are the constants (if dill is used, I prefer to eliminate other herbs); fennel and oregano are also particularly good fish herbs. The following recipe should be considered symbolic—don’t bother to weigh vegetables or measure liquids (fill the saucepan a third or half full with water and when the vegetables are half cooked, pour in as much wine as you like). Leek or celery may be added; add 10 or 15 peppercorns if you like, but only a few minutes before straining—or, if the court bouillon is not strained, add them only when the fish is put in to poach.
Bring the water to a boil, add all the ingredients except the wine (whose acidity will prevent the vegetables from cooking and perfuming the liquid to the fullest degree), simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes, then add the white wine, return to a boil, and continue to cook, covered, for another 20 minutes or so.
A court bouillon in which fish has been poached is a light fumet, which may form a splendid base for a soup or a sauce.
Crayfish (if you can find them—they are often sold in the United States for fish bait, the only drawback being their smallness) are never so good as when simply cooked in a court bouillon, à la nage, the central tail flap of each being first dislodged, the attached thread of intestine gently pulled out (an hour’s milk bath is said to remove the intestinal bitterness, but I have not been happy with the results), plunged alive into the boiling liquid, cooked, covered, at a simmer, for no longer than 5 minutes, and left to steep, covered, for another quarter of an hour before serving. The same observation is valuable for lobster, which, in the face of recent prices, one can hardly afford to treat otherwise lest its flavor dissipate in a sauce or its flesh turn coriaceous beneath the broiler flame (for
Crustaceans aside, poaching means cooking, not at the boiling point or at a simmer, but at a temperature slightly below that of a simmer. Fish slices (no less than an inch thick) are immersed in the hot court bouillon and, if the container is large and heavy, retaining heat well, heating may be discontinued as soon as the liquid approaches the boiling point, the pan kept tightly covered until the poaching time is up. Large whole fish or fish sections are covered with tepid court bouillon, which is slowly returned to a near boil, the heat radically adjusted so that the boiling point may not be reached.
An explanation of timing for poached fish seems always to have frustrated cookbook writers, even such masters as Prosper-Montagné and Escoffier slyly sidestepping the issue and contenting themselves with the observation that the cooking time should be shortened for those fish destined to cool in their court bouillon. I am the more impressed by a note in James Beard’s American Cookery (he gives credit to the Canadian Department of Fisheries): “Measure the thickness of the fish at its thickest point and estimate ten minutes cooking time per inch, whatever the cooking method. Thus, if you are poaching a whole salmon that measures 4 inches at its thickest point, you will poach it forty minutes. If a fillet is half an inch thick you will sauté it or poach it 5 minutes. To broil a steak of salmon or halibut 1½ inches thick, allow 7½ minutes a side.”
Restaurant habits of tangling up a variety of fish, forcemeats, and sauces (sole, lobster, pike quenelles, sauce vin blanc, and sauce à l’Américaine is one of the most often found combinations and is named variously) rarely fail to confuse and tire the palate; a perfectly poached fish accompanied by a single and uncomplicated sauce is always more exciting.
A sauce bâtarde may be prepared rapidly at the moment of serving; replace the water in the recipe by the fish’s poaching liquid. Capers are often added.
The following green sauce is beautiful with either cold or hot poached fish.
Copyright © 1974 by Richard Olney. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.