.. building on experience for a “presentation quality meal”
(c 2013, Davd
“Fish” is about as diverse a class of foods as “meat” or “vegetables”. Filet of sole is light and delicate in taste and texture; sockeye salmon is robust and delightfully oily (and the oil is rich in the Omega-3 polyunsaturated fat that most people’s diets lack.) Mackerel has a strong odor that is also oily but very different from sockeye salmon, and can easily become “rank”; and its taste in the mouth is much lighter than sockeye or even Atlantic and coho salmon. Even among the fishes whose meat is called “white”, there is a great difference ranging from sole through pollock [goberge] and haddock to cod and on to some strong-flavoured kinds of sea bass.
The kinds of fish that cook well “poached in salsa” tend to be white or pink fleshed and relatively light in taste—though sole may be “too light” and tends also to be sold in filets that are thinner than ideal for the technique. This autumn, Pacific pink salmon [Oncorrhynchys gorbuscha] from Alaska and B.C. has been available, frozen whole [gutted, don't worry], at lower prices than any other kind of fish; and i’ve confirmed that it is delicious poached in salsa—as i knew of “pollock” (in English, or goberge in French) from earlier. I’m confident that other species of fish, especially haddock, perch when available in large enough pieces, and probably greenling, will also be good poached in salsa, but perhaps not cod, mackerel, or the higher-fat, stronger-flavoured species of salmon.
(Fish has become much more expensive during my adult life: As a graduate student on a tight budget i often bought rockfish, a very similar fish in taste and texture, for 25-30 cents per pound [55-66 cents per kilo, but in the 1960s, things were done in pounds]. Sirloin steak cost $1-$2 per pound, a good comparison because it, like fish filets, has almost no waste. Today i can get sirloin steak for $4-$5 per pound, or four times the price then; while the least expensive regularly available white fish costs at least ten times its price then.)
Poaching is simmering applied to meat or eggs “by themselves”, often in a flavoured broth: The broth (in this case, salsa picante) is kept just barely boiling, usually for a short time. Poached eggs, for instance, cook for 3-5 minutes. I poached pink salmon in about ten, and if you have doubts whether the fish is cooked, it shouldn’t hurt to cook it for fifteen.
You can make a batch of salsa, pour off two-thirds if you’re cooking just for yourself, and then add 150-200 grams [5-7 ounces] of fish. Or you can put a third of a batch of salsa into a pot (or a small stainless steel frying pan), heat it close to boiling, add the fish, and cook. Either way, a quarter to a third of a batch of salsa and 150-200 g of fish, should feed one man one meal.* For more people, multiply the amounts… and increase the size of the pot or pan.
Let the fish simmer [boil very gently], don’t boil it hard; and 10 minutes should be cooking time enough but if in doubt, 15 won’t hurt. Simmering gently, the salsa shouldn’t stick to the pot; if in doubt, test the bottom with a spoon. When the fish is done, it will be firm in texture. I haven’t made good notes about the time pink salmon takes to cook, vs pollock/goberge, but my educated guess is that salmon takes longer… so fairly thin pollock filets might be done in 5-6 minutes.
When the fish is cooked, add some grain—i almost always use boiled barley or rice—and you have a meal. Salsa in that amount counts as 1-2 ‘servings’ of vegetable in the terms of the Canada Food Guide, the fish is high-quality protein, and the grain gives a little extra balance to that protein. Salsa with a bit of fish taste from the cooking goes well with fish and grain.
My favourite among white fish readily available in the markets, for poaching in salsa, is usually called “Alaska pollock”. (I’m unaware of any way that “Alaska pollock” differs from other pollock, so “pollock” and occasionally goberge is what you’ll read here.) I can usually buy it for $9/kg at the CoOp and sometimes on special for $7.50 at another store, as frozen filets. If you’re near the West Coast and can get “greenling” or “rock cod”, those might be well worth a try. On the East Coast, they’re seldom if ever seen.
If you’re cooking for yourself or for “the guys”, the fish, salsa, and some cooked rice or barley, can be eaten from a bowl (shallow, wide bowls are sometimes called “soup plates.”) If you’re doing “a little nicer presentation”, you can separate the fish from the salsa, put it on a plate, and then add cooked grain to the salsa to serve separately. (I wouldn’t use salsa in which fish was cooked, for dipping corn chips…. or put it on the grain to go with chicken or red meat—but “it’s moot”, because that fish-poaching salsa gets used up in the same meal.)
The commonest white fish species in Atlantic Canadian stores are cod, haddock, pollock, and sole. For poaching, i prefer the pollock, which is the mildest-flavoured of the first three, and often the least expensive of the four. Haddock would be my second choice for poaching in salsa. Cod seems too strong-flavoured for best performance with salsa, while sole seems to me to be “too light” .. but you might think differently, so go ahead and try them if you like: De gustibus, non disputandum est.
I now know pink salmon is delicious poached in salsa. It’s well worth while cooking pink salmon this way; the difference versus pollock, is that pink salmon also comes out very good steamed with carrots, or grilled, or salted raw. (Other salmon species, and Western cutthroat and rainbow trout, are even better salted raw, or smoked, than is pink salmon… if you can manage a trout pond, that’s a great way to grow yourself some fine food!) I might try poaching brook trout sometime—but not the stronger-flavoured Atlantic, coho, spring, or sockeye salmon, nor mackerel and herring. Mackerel and herring are good ‘pickled’ and (mackerel especially) poached in a vinegar based broth; as well as smoked. The oilier, richer-flavoured salmon species are good fried, grilled, salted raw with herbs, as well as smoked, and the thicker cuts can be baked with or without stuffing.
Cod has a more distinct, stronger flavour than haddock or pollock, so i suggest steaming it with chive and a little tarragon or perhaps sage… a technique that also works well with pink salmon, and will be the subject of a future blog for those who don’t know the steaming technique. Your tastes might be different than mine, so go ahead and try those species of fish too, if you’re so inclined. What i can say is that pollock, which is mild flavoured even among white fishes, is mighty good, as is pink salmon, which is mild flavoured even among ‘red’ fishes
The first four “posts” on cooking started with an easy variation on a Finnish soup that not many non-Finns seemed to know about, then described how to sort out a cabbage and make the cooked part tastier, then described two techniques, for healthy fried meat and slightly fancy porridge, which add together for a good hearty breakfast. The last post, on salsa, described something a bit fancier; and now, combining salsa with poached fish and boiled grain (which cooks almost the same as making porridge, but takes noticeably longer than quick oats and is less likely to stick), you have a “presentation meal”, something you can serve that tastes special and many other folks won’t know how to do. (I strongly suggest you cook any meal for yourself and your housemates, at least twice, before doing it “for presentation”.)
Don’t get proud, though: There’s lots more to learn, and this week i’ll be thinking about what might come next. Maybe fileting those whole fish, and-or a review of boiling grain?
* Those “hungry-man” brand frozen dinners brag about being “a whole pound of food”. That’s 454 grams if they are being precise. 150 grams of fish, plus 250 grams or maybe 300 of rice or barley, and salsa, plus a vegetable, add up to at least one pound. 200 grams of fish, plus 300 grams or maybe 400 of rice or barley, and salsa, plus a vegetable, and an apple (banana, orange, etc.) should add up to more than half-again the size of that “big meal”, and without a calorie count that will make any active man get fat. (By the way, i did notice that sausage soup is “too high in saturated fats”, and i don’t recommend you eat it more often than once, maybe twice a week. I wrote my first cooking post about sausage soup, because it is relatively easy for a beginner to cook, and gives beginners a good first experience—plus many people haven’t known about it before.)