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In praise of poaching

Alright, people. I know what you’re thinking. Man, Molly’s sure been sucking down the butter these days. How about those fritters? Did Orangette get sponsored by a cardiologist or something? By all appearances, it’s been a regular fat fest at my place lately, with lipids on parade and Dessert Day everyday. But at the risk of silencing the ole Brown Butter Marching Band, I just want you to know—lest you should worry—that I have also been eating other things. In fact, just like Mom taught me, I can’t have dessert until I finish my dinner. My palate and I are very well trained.

And lucky for us, it’s May. The farmers’ markets are returning like so many migrating birds, staking out territory all over town. There are early baby greens and little pots of herbs to take home for planting. There are bundles of asparagus, piles of artichokes, and heads of cauliflower the size of softballs, curled into neat green bonnets of leaves. And then there is the sign of spring in Seattle—right up there, in my opinion, with Copper River salmon, cherry blossoms, and entire days of sunlight: the full-scale arrival of fresh Alaskan halibut. Even the janky grocery store in front of my apartment gets in on the excitement, unfurling a garish plastic sign that screams, “Alaskan Halibut is Here!” I mean to tell you, I love May.

To me, May means a welcome invitation to stop fussing with my food. For as much as I love winter’s languid braises and slow bakes, by the time spring rolls around, it’s a relief to sit down to a steamed artichoke, period, with maybe a pot of melted butter or homemade mayonnaise. Give me a spring salad, a fresh egg softly boiled, or a heel of coarse bread with butter, salt, and radishes. Or, in the case of this week, put me in front of the stove with a pan of water, garlic, and parsley, and hand me a piece of halibut.

Until a few nights ago, I never would have imagined myself stumping for poached fish, a concept that, for me at least, conjures up visions of pale, pasty, sickly-looking protein, sucked dry—perhaps vampire-style—of all color and nutrients. But this method, from Italy by way of Lynne Rossetto Kasper, has convinced me otherwise. It begins with a skillet of water seasoned with salt, crushed whole garlic cloves, and branches of Italian parsley, and it ends with a plump, snowy-fleshed piece of halibut, silky and fragrant. Along the way, the water is transformed into a salty, herbal broth—like seawater, but better—which infuses the fish and coaxes out its clean, sweet flavor. The garlic softens and mellows, ceding its sharp bite for round edges, winding itself gently around the fish and following it to the plate. Finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon and a slip of olive oil, this is no cafeteria-style fish. It’s more like spring in piscine form—and a very good prelude to dessert.

Poached Halibut with Sweet Garlic, Parsley, and Lemon
Adapted from Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s Weeknight Kitchen newsletter

The key to this preparation is Freshness, with a capital F. This dish is built to showcase the clean, delicate flavor of fresh fish and nothing less. Ask your local fishmonger—or even the fish guy at the grocery store, if that’s your best option—when he gets his deliveries, and save this recipe for those days. If you are in Seattle, get yourself—quickly!—over to Wild Salmon Seafood Market, where the fishmongers know their business and get halibut, fresh off the boats, once or twice a day. Likewise, make sure that you use a good, fresh head of garlic: there should be no green shoots poking from the top, and each clove should feel smooth, solid, and not the least bit spongy. And be sure to use an olive oil that, as Rossetto Kasper says, you would want to eat from a spoon. From there, it’s hard to go wrong.

4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
8 branches Italian parsley
1 tsp salt
2 (~6-oz.) halibut fillets, skin removed, or another firm, white-fleshed fish such as cod, tilapia, or catfish
Additional Italian parsley branches, for garnish
2-4 juicy lemon wedges, for garnish
Good-tasting extra-virgin olive oil, for serving

Place the garlic, Italian parsley, and salt in a 12-inch skillet or sauté pan. Add water to a depth of about 2 inches. Bring to a simmer, cover, and let cook for 5 minutes. It should smell very fragrant.

Meanwhile, measure the thickness of the halibut fillets. They will cook for 8 to 10 minutes per inch of thickness.

When the poaching liquid is ready, slip the fillets gently into the pan. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes per inch, adjusting the heat so that the liquid just trembles: it should only bubble a little, and very gently. To test the fish for doneness, make a small slit with a paring knife in the thickest part of the fillet: all but the very center of each piece should be opaque.

When each fillet is ready, use a slotted spatula to transfer it to a serving plate. Garnish the plates with sprigs of Italian parsley and lemon wedges. Serve immediately, allowing each eater to season their fish at the table with olive oil, salt, pepper, and freshly squeezed lemon.

Yield: 2 servings

Note: If you choose to halve this recipe, do not halve the amount of poaching liquid and aromatics. Halve only the amount of fish.


Blogger shaz said...

im not into poaching. especially fish. l like my fish roasted or grilled. However, I do like poached chicken. chinese style - drunken. Soaked in chinese wine - shaoxing wine and aromatics like ginger and garlic. thanks for sharing your fish recipe. I may just try it out.

10:43 PM, May 08, 2006  
Anonymous Tanna said...

Drat, I was in Seattle two weeks ago! Guess I should send this to my son there. Oh, how I would love to try this. Your writing is so fun and the two pictures are perfect!

4:17 AM, May 09, 2006  
Blogger Leah said...

I love, love, LOVE halibut! And I've had great luck with poaching in the past, so combine that with what may be my most favorite fish, and yum. Thanks, Molly - I can't wait to try this. Wish you could have tried the halibut steaks Nicolette and I served up a few weeks ago; they weren't quite as virtuous as these filets (sitting, as they were, atop hashbrowns of yukon golds, shrimp, bell peppers and onions, and covered in a gorgeous bordelaise made with shrimp shells, red wine, vegetable demi-glace, butter, and french thyme from my wee herb garden - oh and then there was this citrus-y tomato onion marmalade sitting on top of all that!), but oh man were they good.

Spring! And halibut!

9:23 AM, May 09, 2006  
Anonymous robotic gourmand said...

i just saw a program on pbs with ming tsai where he was poaching food in butter. you can read the recipes here.

great recipe though. i'll have to give it a whirl.

9:43 AM, May 09, 2006  
Blogger Dianka said...

Great post! Looks like the poached fish was a success!


10:02 AM, May 09, 2006  
Anonymous Nicolette said...

Molly, that looks divine! And Leah, you should just link the photos of that monstrosity we had for dinner!

10:44 AM, May 09, 2006  
Blogger Leah said...

Ah yes... here is photographic evidence of our halibut feast.

10:55 AM, May 09, 2006  
Anonymous hag said...

Halibut is one of my favorite fish! Thanks for another delicious way for me to prepare it.

12:18 PM, May 09, 2006  
Blogger Louise said...

Molly, your writing is devine! Your descriptions of spring are almost enough to convince me to move back to the west coast. (It was too wet for this prairie girl).

I'm looking forward to trying this recipe because I've reached the age of "2 servings of fish a week". ahhh!

Thanks for adding the link to the newsletter. I had not heard of Ms. Kasper before so I'm going to start downloading the pod casts.

Kitchen Tales

9:30 PM, May 09, 2006  
Blogger Vincci said...

I've always been intimidated by the idea of poaching fish, but that looks soooo good I must try it! I don't know how I feel about halibut though... I think I'll try it with tilapia because I looooove the colour :P

10:10 PM, May 09, 2006  
Blogger Chef said...

Poaching halibut is my favorite way to prepare the great white bottom fish....I like to serve it with a really simple take on a green goddess sauce (greek yogurt, sour cream mixed in the blender with generous handfuls of spring herbs such as tarragon, chives, sorrel). I absolutely ADORE Lynne Rossetto Kasper. Maybe I'll see you sometime again soon...

10:15 PM, May 09, 2006  
Anonymous e said...

i never cook fish. i eat it at my dad's -- he catches it! but this is tempting, and you may get me trying something in the kitchen i have never done before. so given my inexperience with cooking fish, please forgive me when i ask, could i use salmon? or would it fall apart?

10:28 PM, May 09, 2006  
Anonymous gastrochick said...

I agree that the freshness of the fish is of paramount importance to this dish. Otherwise it ends up like awful boiled fish one had to endure at school. In my mind it remains a distant but truly horrible memory alongside overcooked,spongy, liver and stodgy rice pudding which I can never contemplate looking or eating again.

3:35 AM, May 10, 2006  
Blogger Fiber said...

Looks absolutely awesome! Love the before and after pictures too!

9:09 AM, May 10, 2006  
Blogger Chas Ravndal said...

it looks very nice and delicious!

11:23 AM, May 10, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Shaz, I hear you on the "not into poaching" thing! You can imagine, then, how pleasantly surprised I was by this recipe. Next on the docket: maybe your drunken chicken?

Thank you, Tanna! And drat indeed. Do you have a good fish supplier anywhere nearby? I would hate for you to be deprived...

Leah, wow. Those photos! That is one luscious-looking (and -sounding) piece of halibut. Hot damn! Next time, I expect an invitation. Harumph!

Robotic Gourmand, I've heard of this butter-poaching business, and I can only imagine how delicious it might be. Butter-poached lobster? Oh baby. Someday, someday...

Thank you, Dianka. It really is delicious - a new standby, for sure.

Nicolette, you and Leah are killing me over here. That halibut is gorgeous!

You're very welcome, Hag. We owe a big one to Lynne Rossetto Kasper too.

Well, thank you, Louise! And congratulations to you on your brand-new food blog - it's always a pleasure to see a new name out there! As for Lynne Rossetto Kasper, her show is really wonderful - fun, playful, and very informative. I hope you agree. I find her enthusiasm for food to be quite contagious, and her recipes really work.

Vincci, tilapia would be delicious here - go for it, and be not afraid!

Becky, my dear, I don't just hope - I plan to see you sometime soon! This business of you heading off on a boat throws a wrench in things, but I foresee some sort of dinner or something upon your return. Shauna and I will start scheming...

E, you could absolutely use salmon - in fact, it would work beautifully. By all means! And just so you know, I am very jealous of you, what with this fisherman father of yours.

Oh, gastrochick, that sounds terrible. I'm so sorry. I suffered through a bit of creamed chipped beef in the cafeteria, myself, and I'm still getting over it.

Thank you, Fiber! It tasted pretty awesome too, if I do say so myself.

And Chas, thank you.

2:30 PM, May 10, 2006  
Blogger JacquelineC said...

So few food blogs are as well written and beautiful as Orangette. No drab recital of "what I had for dinner" from you...Love this piece and it reminds me of two things: one must reconnect w/local farmer's mkt guy for upcoming story and two: Pasolivo Meyer Lemon Olive oil (post on it in production as we procrastinate) - I'll link to this...

2:50 PM, May 10, 2006  
Blogger Luis Colan said...

hi, haven't taken the time to read through your blog but did see the amazing images you've posted. The colors and textures of the food made my mouth water and my eyes cry of joy.


1:10 PM, May 11, 2006  
Blogger Meghan said...

My fiance and I made this on Monday night and LOVED it. It was so flavorful and mellow, really delicious. The added bonus - we had an incredibly healthy meal and HE was totally into it. Thank you!

4:03 PM, May 11, 2006  
Blogger Nic said...

Hi Molly. I must say that I am not a fish eater, but that plating does look beautiful. Perhaps the next time I'm entertaining I'll try this. It's always nice to have a few light dinner options

5:17 PM, May 11, 2006  
Anonymous Robin said...

Hi Molly,
I just realized that you were not able to access the link to the newsletter about eggs I sent a week or so ago...

it was in the food version of this wine newsletter that you might find enjoyable on a regular basis as this week's topic touches on eggs as well:
The 30 Second Wine Advisor http://www.wineloverspage.com
here's the link for last week's topic on eggs:

If that doesn't work, I'd be happy to send the actual article via cut & paste!

BTW- your halibut recipe made me hunger for cooking some again. More than a year ago my Mom & I had a lovely Halibut dish in Sonoma that was broiled over a bed of fresh spinach and drizzled with olive oil, and some other ingredients which I have forgotten but will try to dredge up out of my memory! I recreated it last summer and it came out wonderful as the greens steam and infuse the fish at the same time. I sprinkled the fish with ground sundried tomatoes, and orange infused olive oil. Some of the greens also crisped under and around the fish. It was delicious and so simple. Sometimes the simplest dishes are the most surprisingly delicious!I'm inspired to make some version of it again soon, now! Happy Spring! Good eating!

6:08 PM, May 11, 2006  
Anonymous Yasmin said...

your halibut looks fantastic! i have a lovely piece waiting at home for me in the fridge and i know just what i'm going to do with it. cold poached salmon is one of my favorite summer staples, and i'm glad to have found new variations on that idea! when i make it for myself, i serve it with the laziest sauce ever: whisk some tomatillo salsa with a bit of sour cream (low fat if you're watching your waistline...). it's tangy enough to offset the mellow sweetness of the salmon...

9:17 AM, May 12, 2006  
Blogger geneve said...

This is my first time visiting your site - it's beautiful! I love the writing and photos. I've never tried my hand at poaching but I love fish - this will be a nice departure from the usual grilling, broiling, etc. Thanks for the great recipe!

10:09 AM, May 13, 2006  
Blogger hayden said...

Thank you for the recipe; it was excellent Molly. I made it Saturday for my mom and it was such a hit. I don't know why I've never tried poaching fish before; so easy! I served it with a nice white local white and grilled asparagus.

8:17 AM, May 15, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Thank you, JacquelineC! That meyer lemon olive oil sounds wonderful. Perhaps with a little poached halibut?

And thank you, Luis. I'm honored!

It's my pleasure, Meghan. So glad to hear it!

I hear you, Nic. When it comes time to entertain, my mind doesn't always leap to such clean, light things - but something tells me that that will now change...

Robin, your halibut dish sounds outstanding. Ground sun-dried tomatoes and orange-infused olive oil - wow. And thank you for the eggs piece in the newsletter. "[A] careful technique that floats somewhere on the margin between frying and poaching in warm butter" sounds like a technique I will have to try.

Yasmin, you've piqued my curiosity with your summertime poached salmon, especially with that tomatillo sauce. It was in the 80s here today, so it might be time...

Geneve, you're very welcome. And thank you for the very kind compliments!

Hayden, I'm so glad to hear it. What a wonderful Mother's Day present.

11:04 PM, May 15, 2006  
Anonymous keiko said...

Hi Molly - I love halibut and love to cook very simply like you did :) Looks great!

4:37 AM, May 19, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Thank you, keiko. I just made this dish again a few days ago - my third time! - and it really is wonderful. I think you'd agree...

12:52 PM, May 19, 2006  
Anonymous Bibliochef said...

I love poaching in general. I poach salmon in curry a lot --- both in a version of Madhur Jaffrey's salmon curry and in a simpler version that take I then use at room temperature on greens. It leaves the taste of the fish delicate. Hurrah for this new recipe.

My blog is juststarting -- covers all sorts of fod related topics, including murder mysteries with foodin them, politics psychoanalysis and food, and religion and food. Come visit!


5:33 AM, May 20, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Bibliochef, that curry-poached salmon sounds like a must-do. Might you post the recipe on your new blog? Please?

11:35 PM, May 23, 2006  
Blogger Tony said...

Great Blog. Another way to cook fish similar to poaching is the "plate method". Simply place a plate with the fish fillet, some flavourings (lemon juice, olive oil, pepper, ginger, coriander, whatever takes you fancy) over a pot of water on the boil. Cover with another plate. When the top plate is warm hot to touch, the fish is done. Clean flavours, no mess, no fried fish smell. What could be easier?! We don't have halibut in Australia but ocean trout and salmon work very well.

1:11 AM, May 29, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Thank you for the tip, Tony! I'll have to give that method a try. Sounds like a wonderfully delicate - and wonderfully unfussy - way to go...

2:46 PM, May 29, 2006  
Blogger Harlan said...

I used this poaching technique with catfish the other day, and it was excellent! (The catfish was very fresh from my local fishmonger, and has the advantage of being shockingly cheap...) The addition of the garlic and parsley to the water gives just the right subtle flavor. Thanks!

12:36 PM, August 07, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

You're most welcome, Harlan. Now I'll have to go out hunting for some catfish...

1:00 PM, August 07, 2006  
Blogger Heather said...

I made this tonight for my family, and it was just delicious! There wasn't a bite left. Thanks for sharing this tip.

4:45 PM, September 10, 2009  
Blogger Betsy said...

This was delicious! We actually used the halibut flaked in fish tacos with cabbage, lime juice, a wee bit of salsa, and avocado sauce (after having a little bit of fish on the side, of course).

The poaching liquid is really intriguing - there must be a use for it. It's almost like a broth... maybe a base for cioppino or the like?

10:28 PM, January 07, 2010  
Anonymous Kassia said...

This turned out deliciously! I didn't have parsley so I used fresh lemon thyme from the garden. Thanks!

8:58 AM, September 17, 2010  
Blogger AnikkiV said...

fast, easy and impressive! I just wowed a few people with this quick preparation (which didn't require me to look at the recipe. - Even more impressive.) Oh, and I loved it too! Thanks, Molly!

7:30 PM, May 01, 2011  
Blogger annasuixoxo87 said...

Molly you are bloody brilliant as we like to say here in Oz. Have tried so many of your wonderful recipes and have yet to be disappointed. This one knocked everyones socks off. My household only eats fish if it's fried so imagine my surprise when I was ordered to put this on my regular cooking roster! Thank you and keep up the great work!

5:40 AM, November 09, 2011  

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