Saturday, January 23, 2010

Day 313a - Court Bouillon, Poached Whole Salmon, and Cucumber, Cress and Caper Sauce

What I wouldn't give for an assistant editor, to whom I would assign the writing of this entry, because after cooking this meal for the past few days, then serving it, then doing all the attendant clean-up, I'm useless.

But it was such a great night and a great meal with wonderful guests, and I'm so proud of the cooking that I really want to kvell about it!

So what I'm going to do is break it down into two entries to make it easier on me.

And it sort of makes sense doing it this way, since I basically cooked two dinner-party-sized entrees.

Here's who was in attendance:
  • Semi-regular Jeff and Martha guest, Ryan
  • and Michael, visiting for his third time
  • The rest were newbies:
  • Ted, brilliant musician, director, conductor, pianist, musical director, and Running Charades player
  • His beau, Noah
  • Michael's beau, Jeff, the amazing composer/lyricist and co-star of my favorite musical from last season on Broadway: [title of show]
  • Two lovely ladies with whom I performed in the '95 Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business... (Ted was the conductor, fyi): the beautiful and talented Jennifer and Luba
  • And finally, Luba's husband, the Panamanian superstar-singer-songwriter-actor-lawyer-politician, Rubén. (That's a lot of hyphens for one guy!)

Court Bouillon (p. 231)

I'd never heard of court bouillon before, but evidently it's quite a traditional liquid to make for poaching. I cooked it two days before the actual poaching, since it can stay refrigerated that long, and I was anxious to get as much as possible out of the way before the big day. Meanwhile, it's a good thing I did, because I always forget how long it takes for these big pots of hot liquid to cool.

Court Bouillon is described in the book as being mild and having a "clean taste and light body," which I guess is accurate, although I think some of the flavors here are pretty bright and aggressive, specifically, the sliced lemon, leeks, and vinegar. I wondered how much those flavors would show up in the finished dish....

A bunch of salt would probably have mitigated some of the acid-taste of the lemon and vinegar, but Martha warns not to oversalt at this stage, so I resisted.

I think this is the first stock I've made from the book that I didn't have to strain - Martha says to leave the vegetables in.

Basically, this was a breeze.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Poached Whole Salmon (p. 229)
Whenever I'm called upon to cook a whole fish, I head straight to Chinatown for the amazing selection of super fresh inventory. I easily found a well-priced, perfectly-sized salmon for the occasion and took it right home to poach.

I'd bought a fish poacher months ago, in anticipation of this recipe, and I was excited to try it out. (It's a long, oval-shaped metal pot with a removable rack inside and a lid.) As instructed, I put the Court Bouillon (two batches) in the poacher, then placed the rack on top of the vegetables and put the fish on it. I added some water to try to cover the fish, but it was sitting pretty high in the pot, so I ended up following Martha's Plan B, which is to cover the parts that are above the water line with parchment paper. Incidentally, my fish was just a little too big for the poacher, so I had to trim the tail, which Martha said might happen.

Next was bringing the pot to a simmer over two burners, which took a bit longer than I expected.... Once it simmers, you keep it at a moderate heat (165°-180°) until a thermometer in the thickest part reaches 130°. I had a little trouble keeping the temperature within these guidelines. It really wanted to be 185°, and even though I lowered the flames, the temperature seemed to stay consistently at 185°.

I wondered whether I was supposed to cover the poacher or not. The issue is never specifically addressed in the recipe. I started with the lid on a little askew, but when I couldn't keep the temperature low enough, I took the lid off. It's my ultimate belief that the poacher is not meant to be covered.

I'm not sure if I agree with the five minutes cooking time per inch of thickness estimate. My fish definitely took longer to cook than that, even at a slightly higher-than-suggested temperature. It was cooking so long, in fact, that I started to worry that my thermometer wasn't working properly, so I put a second one in there. It was nice to see that they were both exactly consistent the whole time.

Finally, the fish hit 130°. Next thing is to turn off the heat and just let it sit cooling in the liquid for an hour. Then, lift the rack out of the pan and let it drain over the sink or a large pot for another half hour. I didn't have a pot that large, and I needed to be using the sink for other things, so I came up with a brilliant (self-evident) idea. I put the fish over the sink long enough to empty the bouillon from the fish poacher, and I let the pot cool for a minute or two. Then I put the fish and the rack back in the empty poacher to drain. Smart, right?

Next, it was time to skin it. I was happy to read that I'd only have to skin one side, since the other side rests against the platter, never to be revealed. The skin was quite easy to remove. I think I spent more time scraping away the brown/grey stuff. It would be really easy to go all OCD during this part of the process, i.e. trying to scrape absolutely perfectly, with no upsetting of the fish meat. I reminded myself that the cucumber garnish would be able to cover any egregious scraping screwups. And it ended up looking just fine.

Once the fish was fully skinned and scraped, it was ready to go in the refrigerator covered in plastic wrap. This was the only scary part of the experience: getting the fish from my counter onto the platter. A seven pound fish is pretty big, and even with two big spatulas, it's tricky to move a fish that big without its head flopping off, which would be ugly. Somehow, I managed to move it in one piece. (I remember feeling like I was cradling a baby's head in my hand.)

Warning: Don't assume that you will easily be able to fit a platter with whole salmon in your fridge. The only place I could find for it was on top of all the juice bottles and milk cartons, etc. on my top shelf. I suggest making sure you have a place for that platter in your fridge before you get to this point.

Finally, when it got close to serving time, I sliced the English cucumber on my mandoline for the fancy garnish. I love the idea of this garnish, i.e. making it look like the cucumber slices continue around the fish. The cucumber slices were pretty wide, though, so I wasn't able to fit that many slices around it. Still, I loved the way it looked.

As for the taste, totally classic. No twist, no reinvention. This was plain salmon at its best. Did it taste like lemon, vinegar, or leeks? No, not at all. But whatever was going on in that bouillon conspired to make this salmon taste just great. Perfect level of doneness, moist as moist could be. I loved how simple it was. Classic is really the best word.

(That's Jennifer with the salmon, to the right, and above, from left to right: Michael, Noah, and Jennifer.)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Cucumber, Cress and Caper Sauce (p. 231)

If I had been thinking, I would have used the food processor to make this sauce. It would have made short work of finely chopping an English cucumber and a bunch of cress. (I couldn't find any Upland cress, so this was made with all watercress.)

The chopped cucumber gets mixed with salt and vinegar and left to sit for five minutes. Quite a bit of juice collects as it sits, and I wondered whether that was intentional, and if so, should I incorporate the juice or throw it out? As I'm writing this, I realize the smart thing to do would have been to reserve it, for adding in later if so desired. Alas, I hadn't had that light bulb moment at the time, so I proceeded without removing it. The sauce ended up being slightly watery, but not alarmingly so.

Flavor-wise, this sauce has a nice, subtle character to it, unlike the standard, dill-in-your-face sauce one is accustomed to having with poached salmon. This sauce really lets the salmon be the star. The only other thing I can think of to say about it is that it tastes very green. In a good way.

Jeff: B (should have thought of draining off/reserving that accumulated liquid)
Martha: A

Here's the table set for the first course, Mango and Hearts of Palm Salad with Lime Vinaigrette, from Everyday Food, Great Food Fast.

And here are all my guests, from left to right: Ted, Jennifer, Jeff, Luba, Michael, Rubén, Noah, and Ryan.

Coming soon: Day 313b - Prime Rib Roast, Oven-Roasted Potatoes, and White Cake with Lemon Curd and Italian Meringue!

Until we eat again....


  1. "What I wouldn't give for an assistant editor, to whom I would assign the writing of this entry...."

    Does that position offer a free meals benefit?

  2. Hey Walter,
    Just realized I never responded to this comment.
    Actually, the truth is: I could never hand over an entry to someone else to write. It's just too personal.
    But a sous chef would be a whole other story. And that gig definitely includes a free meal. :-)