Mary Frances Heck makes Shallow-Poached Salmon with Spring Herbs

Shallow poaching under a cartouche, a circle of parchment paper, yields tender fish in minutes. This method works with any mild fish, such as flounder, rockfish, or grouper.

Video Transcript

MARY-FRANCES: Hey, this is Mary-Frances, I'm the senior food editor at "Food & Wine. " And today we're going to make shallow poached salmon, and the secret to this dish is something called a cartouche. And the cartouche is going to keep the fish really moist and flaky, and it's so, so easy to do at home-- I'll show you how.

First, I'm going to show you how to remove the skin from this beautiful side of salmon. Start by making a vertical cut straight down to the skin, and then use a paper towel to grip the skin. Turn your knife about 45 degrees and use a gentle, sawing motion to separate the flesh from the skin-- this seems intimidating, it's really easy.

So as we move up the filet it's OK to curl it just a little bit-- we never want to fold fish fillets, but you can curl it a little bit. And when it feels like it's starting to be tough to control, that's a good time to stop and then regrip the skin. Actually, salmon skin makes really good snacks if you put it in the oven and crisp it up with some salt, it's delicious.

Let's see-- we've got the skin, We're going to pull the skin out, and discard it. So we have our beautiful salmon fillet, it's skinless at this point, and now I'm going to cut some six ounce portions. So we have this thicker side of the filet, the thinner side, which also contains the belly-- which is extra moist and kind of fatty, it's really delicious-- and then what I'd consider to be the tail. The round where the rib bones were removed, we're going to cut right around there. So I'm going to cut a few center cut portions.

OK, so now I've gotten to the point where I've got this thick fillet and then the thinner belly, and I'm going to go ahead and square off some of that belly. I'm just going to continue eyeballing here, these are about 6 ounces. And then for the actual tail, I'm going to go ahead and fold that piece over, and what that's going to offer me is a piece of fish that's about half an inch thick that's going to cook evenly like the others.

When you're poaching fish or making a pan sauce, it's always great to start with an allium, and by alium I mean a leek, an onion, a shallot, some garlic, any of those-- they're all going to taste good. For this, kind of a nice springtime dish, I really love leek. I'm going to trim off the root, and then I'm going to go ahead and trim off the greens. For this dish, I love cutting it into rounds.

Now, I'm going to slice a lemon. This dish is really cool because we're actually going to use a whole lemon. So I'm going to start by just removing the stem, and we won't be using that, but then slicing it as thinly as I possibly can-- but what we're looking for is beautiful, thin slices that are almost going to melt into the sauce.

So next up, we're just going to do some little beautiful cherry tomatoes. I would say that the cherry tomatoes bring some sweetness, a pop of acid as well-- but tomatoes have a lot of umami in them, so for the sauce for our fish, it's going to add a depth of flavor as well.

The next thing we're going to do is we're going to prepare a cartouche-- you heard me. And a cartouche is a fancy French word for a paper lid, and I'll show you what I'm talking about. I am going to take a sheet of parchment, this would be the standard size for like a baking sheet, and I want to create a paper lid out of this parchment for the skillet.

And what that's going to do is allow for a little bit of evaporation, but it'll keep the fish really moist while it's cooking. We're just going to make two very precise cuts though, and the first cut-- I'm back. The first cut is going to be to match the size of our pan, so I've got the points of the parchment. I want to line it up with about the middle of the pan, and then note where the parchment meets the edge of the pan, grab a pair of scissors, and cut right there in a little arc.

I'm going to cut about a half inch off the tip and that will create an approximately 1 inch hole. Here's the cartouche. And you can just double check it before you start cooking to make sure that it fits nicely in the pan, if it's inside the pan but it goes to the edge. I have got my cartouche, I've got my fish, let's head to the stove.

I am adding a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and a couple tablespoons of butter. And now for these lemon slices, I'm going to set them pretty intentionally each into the fat-- hear that? That's what we want to hear, really nice sizzle. And so, one by one, as you see them start to bubble, just gotta flip them over-- you can see they're getting a little golden brown.

So really looking for that caramelization to start happening on the lemon slices, and really bubbly centers. OK, these are looking really good, I'm going to go ahead and add the leeks. Now I can mix them in with the lemons, kind of get everything in here happy together-- wow, that looks really good. OK, so we're going to season these with some sea salt, you could also use kosher salt.

I kind of like using sea salt for fish, I think there's something-- there's an emotional connection, but there's also this sort of minerality to sea salt that I think is really nice with fish. And I'm going to do some freshly cracked black pepper, so now I'm going to add my fish fillets, and I'm going to take some of these really nice fresh thyme sprigs.

And now for the good stuff, adding wine into the pan, not right on top of the fish, until it just comes up about a third of the way of the filet. This is a Sonoma County chardonnay, I love this for cooking and drinking. It's a good enough wine that you could have a glass while you're cooking, you can use it in your food and it's going to taste awesome, and then you can have another glass at the table. Any lightly oaked chardonnay is going to be great for cooking this dish.

Here the wine is just starting to bubble, we want to capture all that steam and that's where the cartouche comes in. I set the cartouche on top of the fish, that's going to trap the steam while allowing a little bit of evaporation while the fish cooks. I'm going to slide this into a 500 degree oven for just a few minutes until the fish is perfectly cooked.

All right, got the cooked fish-- look at how good that looks. I'm going to take the cartouche, I'm going to set it right here because I'm going to use it again. So you want a fish spatula, and this is going to allow us to get under the fish and lift it up without bringing any of the sauce with it.

Take the cartouche and cover the cooked fish just to keep it warm and moist while we finish the sauce. Now we have this gorgeous poaching liquid, we're going to bring it back up to a simmer, and turn it into a pan sauce. We have our cherry tomatoes-- now once everything is simmering and the tomatoes have just warmed through, we're going to add some butter to enrich and finish the sauce.

Now we're going to add a little bit of butter, and by little I mean another 4 tablespoons-- half a stick? It's fine. This is looking really good. It looks creamy, the butter has emulsified into the sauce-- let's plate it up. The great thing about shallow poaching, it's a classic technique, but it's something you can adapt to pretty much whatever kind of fish you want to cook.

Something else I love about shallow poaching with wine is that it uses a little bit of a pretty good bottle of wine and leaves you plenty for everybody to have a glass at dinner. It's a lightly oaked chardonnay, so it's going to bring a little bit of richness-- not all the way to buttery, but it's going to compliment a dish like this really nicely.

The fish is perfectly cooked, it's really creamy, really, really moist, and the wine and the lemon in the sauce are coming through. It's a little tart, but rounded out with that butter? Wow, this is a great dish. This is a keeper recipe, one you can do with any kind of fish, and definitely something for every season. Well, I'm going to keep eating this. Cheers.