Friday, July 24, 2009

A better fish to poach

Poaching is the orphan child of my fish cooking repertoire (add steaming to that as well). I love browning. I don't care how it gets done -- on the grill, under the broiler, or in the skillet -- but I'll take crispy and crunchy over delicate and creamy any time. There is however a benefit to poaching fish. The liquid you have left can be reduced, then thickened with a flour/butter paste, and enriched with cream. This sauce is so lovely that I can't completely dismiss poaching. In fact, it was this dish that is partially responsible for my obsession with French cuisine. I had it in Nice while studying art history in Provence in my senior year of college. I saved up my pennies and after surviving on sandwiches and tarts for a month (not such a bad thing, by the way), I treated myself to a meal at a little bistro. The special of the day was Truite A L'Oseille. I figured that truite was trout and I had no idea what oseille was -- but it was the loveliest fish dish I've ever eaten (up to that point in my life). The best part was the creamy tart sauce. When I got back to the States, I was determined to learn to make it. Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking provided wonderful instructions on poaching and turning the liquid into a creamy sauce, and after consulting a few dictionaries, I finally found what oseille is called in English -- sorrel. At the time, I didn't know what sorrel was either, but eventually I found it in the store, tried it in a sauce, and voila -- there was that refreshing tart flavor I've been dreaming about since that warm October evening in Nice.

Poached fish with sorrel cream sauce was the second fish dish that I learned to cook (the first one was salmon teriyaki that my Mom taught me). Since then I've discovered plenty of cooking techniques and fish dishes that I like better. I have worked tirelessly to improve my grilling, searing, and broiling, but poaching fell by the way side and my skill in that area stayed at the senior year of college level. The only time I still poach fish is for the fish class (I guess I feel like I should provide people with well-rounded fish education and show them some wet cooking method).

The poaching recipes usually recommend flaky lean white fish like sole, flounder, turbot and halibut. I don't like the sole we get in US (it's really a flounder). It has no flavor or character, and turns into a complete fragile mush when poached. Halibut is my go to choice when poaching. It's much thicker and firmer, so it holds it's shape better and when not over cooked comes out juicy even after poaching. But last time I taught the fish class, Carl, my fishmonger, didn't have halibut. After scratching my head and considering my options, I settled on turbot. Carl said that it has a bit more fat than flounder, and I never complain about more fat.

Unfortunately, it turned out that turbot is even more fragile than flounder. The sauce was good, but it felt like the fish was just disintegrating in it. Luckily, there is nothing like a good cooking disaster to get me to rethink my ways. I decided to find a better fish to poach. Suddenly it occurred to me that I've never tried poaching trout. Wasn't that the fish I had in Nice? I consulted Julia and she actually suggests trout as one of the fish substitutions in her poached sole recipe. I guess I've never poached trout because it's skin is so lovely crisped in a skillet or on the grill. But for the sake of experiment, I decided to sacrifice a few trout skins.

My poached trout turned out beautifully -- great flavor and delicate, but not mushy flesh. It's funny how it took me 10 years to realize the obvious. Trout was a cinch to get out of the poaching liquid since it's not as fragile as sole, flounder, and company. It also had the skin on to hold together. After getting it out onto a plate, I peeled the skin off and made the sauce.

This is probably more than you ever wanted to read about my poaching trials and tribulations. If you want to try it, here is a recipe.

Poached Trout with Sorrel Cream Sauce

Fish substitutions: arctic char with skin, barramundi with skin, branzino with skin, or other delicate skin-on fish fillets that are 3/4 inch thick or less. Avoid brown fleshed oily fish like bluefish or mackerel for this dish.

Serves 4

12-15 sorrel leaves (or a handful of tarragon, chervil, chives, or cilantro)
1 Tbsp butter, at room temperature
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 cup dry white wine (plus more as needed)
1.5 cup water (plus more as needed)
1.25 Lb white trout fillets with skin
1/2 cup heavy cream (it's fine to use less than 1/2 cup if calories are an issue, but don't substitute light cream or half and half)
Salt and pepper
  1. Remove the stems from sorrel or whatever herb you are using. Discard the stems and mince the herbs very finely. Set aside.
  2. Combine butter and flour in a small bowl and mash with a fork until a smooth paste forms. Set aside.
  3. Pour wine and water into a 12 inch skillet that can later be covered. You need to create a liquid layer that's the same thickness as your fish fillets, so add more wine and water as necessary using 1 part wine to 2 parts water ratio. Bring to a gentle simmer. Have a warm plate ready for when the fish is done.
  4. Season fish fillets with salt and pepper on both sides and arrange in the skillet skin-side down in one layer (it's ok for the thin parts to overlap). Partially cover and cook gently for 8 minutes per inch of thickness (most trout fillets will be done in 2-4 minutes). The liquid should be barely quivering and never bubbling. If some parts of the fillet stick out of the poaching liquid, you can flip the fillets over the last 30 seconds of cooking time. The trout is done when you can stick a chop stick or the handle of a fork through the thickest part. It should still be slightly translucent inside, but that's hard to see when it's in liquid. Err on the side of undercooking.
  5. Remove the trout to a warm plate using a spatula and place it skin side up.
  6. Turn up the heat under the skillet to high and reduce the liquid to about 2/3 of a cup (there should be only 1/6 inch layer of liquid left in the bottom of your skillet). While the liquid is reducing, peel the skin off trout (it should come off easily if you pull it tail to head).
  7. When the poaching liquid is reduced. Turn down the heat to low and whisk in the flour butter paste. Simmer on low for 2 minutes whisking constantly. The liquid will thicken and look like gravy. If the liquid is looking too thick, you can thin it out with the juices accumulating in the plate where the fish is resting.
  8. Stir in the cream and bring to a simmer. Take off heat and stir in the sorrel (or the herb you are using). Taste and correct seasoning. The sauce might need a little salt or a squirt of lemon.
  9. Put the fish on warm plates (discarding the liquid accumulated in the plate where the fish were resting, unless you need to thin out the sauce with it). Pour the sauce on top. Serve with crusty baguette.


jo said...

personally would have crisped that trout skin anyway and used it as a garnish, a la bacon.
That does look lovely though.

Cucinista said...

This looks great. I love the commentary which you are always so good about writing. Your blog is an education in food and food history. I don't usually comment, but I always read. I'm a lurker...

Julia said...

this sounds so delicious.

What will happen if you skip the wine and just use water? My experience with cooking with wine has been hit and miss and sometimes I find that it imparts a rich, distinctive flavor that doesn't always go well with everything.

Laura [What I Like] said...

This certainly is not more than I want to hear about your poaching adventures...this was fascinating! I cannot wait to give this recipe a try, it sounds absolutely delicious.

adele said...

Ooh. I'm absolutely with you on crispy fish skin, but that looks very good. Does watercress work in place of sorrel?

Anonymous said...

Where do you get sorrel in the Boston area? I love the taste (esp. in soup) but I can't seem to ever find it. Love the blog!


Helen said...

Wow guys -- lots of great comments. Let me try to reply...

Jo: I love the idea of crisping the skin separately. Would you take it off before poaching? I like to keep it on because it keeps the fish together, but I am not sure if it would crisp after being poached. though trout is not so fragile and it might poach fine without a skin. will have to try sometimes :)

Cucinista: so glad you commented -- welcome to Beyond Salmon!

Julia: feel free to skip the wine and just poach in water or vegetable stock (home-made). Wine adds a note of acidity, so if you skip it, give your sauce a squirt of lemon to taste in the end.

Adele: I've never tried using watercress in place of sorrel, but it's worth a shot. Pretty much any delicate herb will work (in other words, parsley, chives, dill would be fine, but rosemary, sage, thyme would not).

MG: Russo's always carries sorrel, but they never put it out, so you have to ask them. unfortunately, one of the guys in the produce department is really mean and he either tells me they don't have it, or comes back with a bunch and tells me that it's $10. if you run into him, don't give up, fine another employee and ask them to go in the back and check. usually, it works, and they only charge you $1.50 a bunch, just like other herbs. Sometimes, whole foods and star market have it too.

applecrumbles said...

Great recipe! I'm def. going to have to try this one. Interesting post.

Bill Medifast said...

This recipe looks quite tasty. I am not usually the biggest fish fan but when it looks this yummy I'll try anything.

Owyn from Medifast Coupons said...

I've never thought to poach fish but this sounds quite tasty. Thanks for sharing this. Can't wait to try it out myself.

Virtually 21 said...

I know NOTHING about poaching anything, but have had fabulous poached dishes in restaurants. I look forward to trying your recipe!

any other hints will be grealty appreciated!

Virtually 21 said...

The fish looks fabulous!! can't wait to combine your poaching techniques with my crazy concoctions!

Corvid said...

I got some rainbow trout and sorrel in my local co-op/CSA share this week and had to find a recipe. I stumbled across this. It made it tonight, and it was fantastic! Thanks very much!