I will spare you the details of the misunderstanding. Suffice it to say that the project really began in the laundry room of a comfortable, old-fashioned Maine mansion. In the classic deep double sink, embedded like a pair of champagne bottles in outsize buckets of ice, were two large fish. Two very large fish. One of them measured three feet eight inches. The other was longer. Both were commensurably plump.
The monsters were destined to become cold salmon with green mayonnaise for 70 wedding guests. It was my job to cook them. It was not required that I cook them whole. It wasn’t even suggested, but “the devil made me do it. ”
After all, it stands to reason that anyone not actually possessed would have poached the salmon in pieces, then reassembled the parts. With a bit of decor in appropriate places nobody would be the wiser.
But there’s something about the challenge of cooking creatures that size that excites the latent vanity of even a modest chef. When the chef is not any too modest, and when her employer is also a skilled cook and contemplator of challenges, the result is bound to be something like Poached Salmon a la Bathtub.
The fish were served proudly seamless, glistening with aspic in an enormous wreath of nasturtium flowers — a tour de force of no mean proportions for which we garnered much congratulation.
The inspiration came from dimly remembered stories about how the Indians lived. According to the leader of my old Brownie troop, the Indians had cooked large objects in hollowed logs filled with water. They heated the water by dropping hot stones into it.
We did exactly the same thing, lowering rather than dropping the stones in deference to the bathtub, and adding wine and lemons and such, which the Indians did not.
If you acquire a large fish and wish to follow our example, you will need:
1) A bathtub. It has to be a porcelain one, uncracked and unchipped in the business section, both so that you can scrub it clean enough and so that it won’t melt when you put the stones in. It should be small so as to require the smallest amount of water and seasonings. And it should be close to the kitchen for obvious reasons. (Allow me, on the basis of experience, to suggest that a bathtub on the second floor at the top of a narrow flight of rickety stairs is not a good idea.)
2) Rocks. These should be cobbles, granite, brick, or other explosion-proof material. They shouldn’t weigh much more than five or six pounds, since you must handle them when they’re hot.
3) A support for the fish. This could be a section of bookshelf wrapped well in tinfoil, a large grille from a barbecue unit, or any big sheet of something rigid that isn’t poison and doesn’t weigh much. You need it to support the fish while it cooks and while it cools. It needn’t be exactly fish length, especially if you wind tight enough with
4) Cheesecloth, lots of cheesecloth.
You will need the seasonings that are commonly used with poached fish — lemons, peppercorns, mustard and/ or coriander seeds, celery, carrots, onions, parsley, and, of course, white wine. You can make a proper court bouillon if you are feeling ambitious, but a big fish means a lot of liquid, and it ‘s not really necessary. You will, however, need at least enough of the seasonings to partially stuff the fish.
Be sure there are plenty of tea towels, potholders, and similar articles on hand. Start thinking about a presentation platter. We were able to use the marble top of a Victorian hall table, but only because someone strong enough to lift it happened to be handy. Having someone strong and long armed to help is a good idea in general. Otherwise, just lowering the supported salmon into its waiting bathtub takes a bit of engineering.
Begin by putting the rocks (enough to pave the tub by about one third) into a cold oven. Turn the heat to 200° and bake for 20 minutes. Raise the heat to 375° and bake at least 1-1/2 hours more.
Heat several large pots of water while you are heating the rocks. Put seasonings in if you’re inclined toward court bouillon. Bathtubs and giant fish vary so much that it’s hard to suggest quantities, but a four-foot fish in a five-foot tub will require about 10 to 15 gallons of liquid, 3 pounds each of carrots and celery, 5 or 6 big onions, 8 lemons, 2 bunches of parsley, 5 or 6 bay leaves, and 1/4 cup peppercorns.
Of course you won’t need nearly so much if you just use the seasonings to stuff the fish. This “stuffing” is partly to provide flavor and partly to keep the top and bottom of the fish slightly ajar so the heat can get all the way to the backbone from both directions.
Lay out four overlapping long pieces of cheesecloth crisscross to make a square and lay the fish thereon. Insert the vegetables, cut in rough chunks. Completely wrap the fish in the cheesecloth, pulling it tight. Tie it in a few places with kitchen twine. This binding up will help the fish keep its shape during the cooking process.
Put the fish on its support and let it come to room temperature.
Clean the bathtub. First scrub mightily with cleanser, then rinse with the greatest possible thoroughness. After you’ve given the final rinse, go back and wipe out the whole tub with a vinegar-soaked cloth. Rinse again. Fill the tub with hot tap water and let it heat thoroughly.
O.K. Everybody ready? Drain the tub. Lower in the fish on its support. Pour the heated (seasoned) water over and around the fish. Position a heated rock on a tea towel, and lower it into the water. Roll the rock off the towel, as close to the fish as it will go without touching. Position the rest in the same way.
Now inspect the water level. If it doesn’t come halfway up the fish, add hot tap water until it does. Arm yourself with a small saucepan and start ladling the hot water over the fish. Keep it up, concentrating on the thicker sections and not worrying overmuch about the head. A fish four inches thick will take about an hour.
When you think the fish is cooked, use a razor blade to cut right through the cheesecloth into the fish at the thick part near the backbone. As soon as the flesh there is opaque, the cooking is complete. A thin layer of still-translucent meat next to the bone is O.K. Held heat will continue the cooking for some time after the tub is drained.
Let the fish cool in situ, if you can. There are few things more awkward to handle than a big hot wet fish.
The fish should, however, still be slightly tepid when you transfer it to the serving platter, because a warm fish is so much easier to peel. Film the platter and the support with cold water so the fish will slide around easily. Move the fish gently off the support onto the platter, proceeding cautiously so it doesn’t break. Cut away the cheesecloth.
Remove and discard the stuffing. Carefully peel away most of the fish skin, leaving a decorative bit near the tail, and of course the head. Have a flat knife handy in case you need to help free the creamy pink meat.
Now either glaze the salmon with aspic (see your all-purpose cookbook) or cover the exposed portion with plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out.
To chill the fish and keep it cold, put the platter on a strong support, back into the faithful bathtub. Surround it with ice. Be sure the support is tall enough to keep the platter out of the melted ice water.
At serving time surround the fish with leaves and flowers and pass a nice green sauce separately. Here are some green sauces for poached fish:
This classic sauce is always flavored with a puree of herbs. Spinach and watercress are the foundation and coloring agent. The classic flavorings are tarragon and parsley, but dill, chervil, even green coriander leaves can also be used to good effect.
- 1/4 pound fresh spinach leaves, all coarse stems removed
- 1 bunch watercress, leaves only
- 4 tablespoons minced parsley
- 3 tablespoons fresh tarragon
- 3 egg yolks
- 2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon dry mustard
- tiny pinch of sugar
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 cup peanut oil
Chop the spinach, watercress, parsley, and tarragon until the greenery is pureed. Put the mass in the corner of an expendable dishtowel or double layer of cheesecloth, wrap it up and squeeze it to extract all possible juice.
Use the remaining ingredients to make mayonnaise according to the instructions in your all-purpose cookbook. Stir the wrung-out greenery into the mayonnaise. Let it sit at room temperature for five minutes, then taste it and add salt and lemon juice as necessary.
Please notice I have not suggested you can substitute ordinary store mayonnaise. Its sweet flavor is all wrong for this sophisticated sauce.
Green Mayonnaise will keep in the icebox for four or five days and is great not only on poached salmon but on hard-boiled eggs and potato salad and fresh tomatoes and clam fritters, to say nothing of cold roast beef, turkey sandwiches, and, in all probability, your grandfather’s old boot. Only 80,000 calories a tablespoon.
- 1 large or 2 medium-sized cucumbers
- 1 tablespoon prepared mustard of the smooth, slightly sweet, Scandinavian type
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons peanut oil pinch of ginger
- 1/3 cup white wine vinegar or rice vinegar
- 2 cups yogurt or sour cream
- 1/2 cup snipped fresh dill salt to taste
Peel the cucumbers. Quarter them the long way and cut out the seeds. Grate the meat on the large holes of a grater and spread the shreds on absorbent paper to dry, Let them sit for about 5 minutes.
Beat the mustard, sugar, oil, and ginger until the mixture is well combined, then slowly beat in the vinegar. Stir in the shredded cucumber and marinate. Refrigerate for 1 to 3 hours but not longer.
At serving time, drain the cucumbers, reserving the marinade. Beat the yogurt or sour cream until it’s smooth, then slowly beat in the marinade to make a sauce just a little thicker than heavy cream.
Fold in the cucumber, dill, and salt to taste and serve at once.
The texture of this sauce does not keep well, but it does continue to taste good even after it looks terrible. When I end up with leftovers, I stir them into potato salad.