Cold salmon or sea trout

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Cold poached salmon is rather out of fashion, probably due to a collective memory of overcooked, slightly stale fish clad in tired cucumber scales sulking at us from buffet and wedding breakfast plates. When done with a fine wild fish and eaten as soon as possible, this dish is the spirit of British summer. I cannot stress the ‘eaten as soon as possible’ enough; cooked salmon alters dramatically when you refrigerate it. The natural oiliness of the fish is changed by the cooking process and sets in an unpleasant manner when chilled. The ideal state of affairs is to cook, allow to cool, and serve straightaway. I am a great fan of pantries, so if you have a nice cool one, use it for this dish and its accompanying salads.

Farmed salmon are nothing but a cheap and profitable source of protein, and their production is having a disastrous effect on delicately balanced Scottish loch eco-systems. A wild salmon is an expensive fish, a fish worth waiting and paying for. Compare one of these sleek, magnificent beasts with the limp-fleshed, stub-tailed, obese farm fish: wild Atlantic salmon has swum and hunted in the ocean, and has muscle tone which reflects in its flavour and texture; a farm fish doesn’t swim anywhere, it waddles around its cage and tastes as flabby as it looks.

At L’Escargot we made a feature of cold salmon pretty much right through the summer, often cooking as many as six fish in a day. Trying to poach that many fish turned into a nightmare so we baked them in foil. I give the method for both techniques below. Ask your fishmonger to gut, scale and behead the fish. You can leave the head on if your fish kettle or oven is big enough and your guests won’t mind the finished dish staring beadily at them.

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Ingredients

  • 1 wild salmon or sea trout, about 2-3 kg (whole fish weight)
  • ½ bottle dry white wine
  • 1 carrot, peeled and sliced
  • 1 onion, peeled and sliced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 sprig parsley
  • a dozen or so black peppercorns
  • a generous handful of sea salt

Method

Poaching the Salmon

Put all the ingredients except the salmon into a fish kettle with its removable tray in place, add enough water to half fill the pan, and bring to a boil.

Make sure that the salmon is completely free of blood in its body cavity. If the fishmonger has left some, sprinkle with salt and gently rub it out with an old toothbrush. Place the salmon in the kettle and add enough cold water to immerse it completely. Bring back to the boil, leave to simmer over a lower heat for 5 minutes then switch off. Cover the kettle and put to cool down away from the heat. Do not peek or uncover for 2 hours, by which time everything should have cooled down to room temperature and the salmon will be perfectly cooked. Half an hour before you wish to serve it, gently lift the salmon out of the fish kettle on the special tray. Slide it carefully on to your serving platter.

Serving

I prefer to leave the fish with its skin on, but you are welcome to strip it on the upper side and decorate it with cucumber slices simulating scales if you wish. Serve with the salads detailed overleaf.

To Bake Salmon

You will need some extra wide foil. Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas 4. Spread out a double sheet of foil big enough to wrap the fish in, and lightly oil it. Season the fish generously and enfold it in the foil, twisting the ends to form handles. For a fish between 2 and 3 kg a roasting time of 40 minutes will be enough, providing you leave the fish wrapped in its parcel to cool completely. Unwrap, transfer to a serving dish and serve in the same way as the poached version.

Sea Trout Instead of Salmon

There is little difference between sea trout and salmon, gastronomically speaking, although they are separate species within the same family. Sea trout tends to have a more delicate flavour, is smaller (look out for large ones in July), and comes into season later. To cook, follow the same procedures as for salmon, but halve the cooking times if the fish are under 1 kg.

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