05 February 2007

In Praise of Poaching

No, not that kind of poaching, the kind where you cook something in gently simmering water or stock. In an episode of "Fast Food My Way," while describing his recipe for pollo tonnato, which is based on chicken breasts poached in a court bouillon (a light vegetable stock), Jacques Pepin tosses off a bit of kitchen wisdom: that you can also poach a whole chicken in court bouillon the way he does the chicken breasts. Add the whole chicken, simmer ten minutes, switch off and leave to poach forty-five minutes. It's something I always wanted to try, so on Friday I just went ahead and did it.

A big pot filled with boiling water out of the electric kettle.
A couple teaspoons salt.
A couple carrots, chopped up.
An onion, coarsely chopped.
The top of a head of celery, leaves included.
Three bay leaves.
Some white peppercorns.

Brought this to a rolling boil for about five minutes and added....

A whole chicken. I used a Murray's minimally processed bird, about 5 lbs. I took the giblets out, but didn't do anything else, didn't even wash it, as it was going into boiling water anyway.

The coolness of the bird killed the boil. I brought it back to a gentle simmer and left it for 10 minutes, partially covered. I then shut the heat off, covered fully, and put the timer on for 45 minutes and walked away. When I came back, the breast meat registered 170F on the thermometer. I did this out of curiosity, not necessity. I could've futzed for another fifteen minutes and it would've been fine.

I pulled the bird out, and then let it cool on a platter. That's it.

I've turned this into several different dishes. After about 15 minutes, I went at it with a paring knife, separating the legs from the body, and slicing and pulling the breast meat off. All the skin went back into the pot. As the bird cooled, I stripped all the meat off that I could and returned the bones to the pot. I simmered the bones, skin and poaching liquid together for about a half hour, then left it to cool. I've been using this delicious stock for a few dishes as well.

Here's some great things about poaching:
  • energy-efficient. If you're looking for lower power bills, it's maybe better to turn off a few lights, but water conducts heat much more efficiently than air. The amount of gas you'd use roasting a chicken to done in one hour would be at least triple what you'd use to poach. Even better, you can use your electric kettle to boil the water, making this recipe...
  • cool. There's not a lot of extra heat flying around your kitchen, so this is a summer recipe. Boiling down the poaching liquid to stock makes it a good winter recipe as well.
  • forgiving. Fish is less forgiving, but there's a lot of wiggle-room in this recipe. The predictability of using water's boiling point as a heat source and thermostat means there's less variability in the heat being put into the food, which also makes poaching...
  • precise. The boiling point of water varies with altitude and salinity, and a simmer is anywhere from about 185 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, but these variances are minute compared to the variables introduced in roasting, braising, and sauteeing by the nature of the heat you're applying, the weight and material of the cooking vessel, etc. Poaching in a cheap aluminum pot is the same as poaching in anything else. Heck, you could do this recipe in a rice cooker if you wanted. The water's always about the same temperature, and the water's really the only thing touching the food.
Next: What I did with all this good food.

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