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Poached to Perfection

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Poached to Perfection

Spring makes everyone hungry for lighter and brighter tasting meals. Poaching is a technique that quickly and delicately cooks many foods you’d otherwise think of boiling, roasting or frying. It’s an easy technique to master, and a simple way of refreshing your repertoire.

Poaching is a way of cooking food by submerging it, entirely or partially, in hot liquid. Not boiling liquid, and in fact not even simmering. The liquid should be just under a simmer – between 71° and 82°C, to be precise. Cooking hotter than this can toughen foods, and in general the best things to poach are soft foods that should be cooked to a tender texture. Think of the difference between a boiled egg and a poached egg. Aside from the shell, the only difference is cooking temperature.

Eggs are a great place to start. It’s been argued that adding an acid like vinegar to the water will help the whites coagulate more neatly, but here’s the real secret: there are two kinds of egg white. One is quite thin and runny, the other’s more solid. The trick to a tidy poached egg is straining off the runny white by cracking the egg into a sieve. Gently swirl the water, and slip the strained egg in for a hot bath – a minute or two at the most should do it. (And forget about the vinegar.)

Level two is poaching fish. The elegant process and succulent results will make you feel like a real chef. The high heat of roasting and frying can make the oils in fish smell strong. Poaching not only helps prevent this fishiness, it also virtually guarantees perfect doneness. You want to use a pan that fits your fillet as snugly as possible, and poach for about 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Fish is traditionally poached in a court bouillon (a quick stock), which is water flavoured with wine or little vinegar, onions, carrots, and the herbs and seasonings you traditionally use for a stock.

The ultimate poaching experience is poaching in butter. If you like the flavour of boiled or grilled shellfish like shrimp, lobster and scallops, just wait until you try poaching them in butter. You don’t need to submerge the fish entirely, and despite what you may think, the fish doesn’t absorb much butter. It does, however, retain an incredibly buttery texture and intense flavour, as the fat does not draw flavour out of the food, in the way that water does. Remember to season the butter with salt and pepper, perhaps some garlic, smoked paprika or chile flakes, chopped basil, a vanilla pod, what have you.

Fruit poached in spiced wine is another classic that never fails to impress by its simple sophistication and sublime flavour. Mild sausages are deliciously tender when poached. A popular comfort food in many Middle Eastern countries is Shakshouka, or eggs poached in a spiced tomato sauce.

On top of the endless variations it permits and the delicious results it yields, poaching is pretty much foolproof. Nothing will burn. So go ahead: trust your instincts, and experiment with flavours. A delicately poached and delicious new dish is just waiting to grace your table.

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