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Succulent seafood

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Poaching is the perfect method for perfectly prepared seafood

The plate evokes an artist’s palette. Coral-colored fish fillet. Emerald-hued green beans. Each highlights the other in perfect contrast.

Salmon I’ve eaten aplenty, but rarely had my appetite been so piqued by this staple seafood of my childhood, this protein prized throughout the Pacific Northwest. Poaching was key to the salmon’s succulence. I vowed right then and there to never again attempt roasting, searing or grilling this delicacy, when poaching was clearly preferable.

The method, of course, is nothing new. But I made a point of demonstrating it for a cooking video that coincided with Oregon’s salmon season. I wanted a foolproof recipe after carelessly overcooking some sockeye salmon for a family dinner the week prior.

Some foods may not appear overcooked to the casual observer. Salmon, on the other hand, has the unfortunate distinction of weeping albumin, naturally occurring protein that coagulates into white goop when the fish is cooked too hot or too long — or both. I’ve often suspected that 1950s-era recipes that call for coating salmon in a layer of mayonnaise don’t retain moisture so much as disguise globs of albumin.

These unappetizing clumps can be scraped off the fish’s surface, but the damage has been done. Salmon cooked to that point has forfeited moisture, flavor and some of its health benefits — an unconscionable loss, considering the fish’s retail cost and diminishing stocks in many of its native rivers.

Instead of sacrificing flavor, cooks can infuse it by poaching — specifically in beer, wine, cider, stock, citrus juice or a combination. I chose beer for my recipe, in part to highlight the selection of craft brews available at the grocer that hosted RoseBud Channel’s video shoot.

When I replicated the dish a few weeks later at home, I used a can of dry cider I happened to have on hand. A big handful of fresh herbs, a few peppercorns and a bay leaf in the poaching liquid impart savory, spicy notes throughout the flesh, instead of sitting on top, as rubs for grilling and roasting do.

A health-conscious choice, poaching eliminates the calories from fats fundamental in sautéing, as well as the salt needed for marinades and caramelization achieved during grilling. It’s ideal for proteins naturally low in fat, namely seafood but also chicken and turkey breast.

Safeguarding the quality of seafood served to fete the new year, poaching also hits the reset button on winter menus bogged down by sauces, gravies and added richness. This thrifty technique even uses up open bottles of wine and other alcoholic beverages purchased in excess for the holidays.

Finish with a dollop of herb-infused mayonnaise or some toasted nuts. Or cook the seafood in a spicy broth that soaks into grain and vegetables accompaniments.

Although the following recipe for Moroccan Spiced Shrimp Over Couscous calls for microwaving butternut squash, I favor the texture of peeled and diced squash cooked in a steamer basket over simmering water. It adds a few minutes but keeps the squash from getting soggy. Make up that time by purchasing already peeled and diced butternut squash from the grocery store.

Beer-Poached Salmon with Tarragon Mayonnaise

1/2 cup mayonnaise (low-fat is OK)

1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon

1 teaspoon minced, fresh chives

1 teaspoon chopped scallions

1 teaspoon minced, fresh parsley

12 ounces beer

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

1 celery stalk, chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1 bay leaf

4 whole peppercorns

4 (6-ounce) salmon fillets, 1 inch thick

In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, tarragon, chives, scallions and parsley. Chill until ready to serve.

In a large skillet, combine the beer, lemon juice, onion, celery, salt, bay leaf and peppercorns. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the salmon fillets. If liquid does not cover fish, add more beer or water to just cover. Lightly simmer for 10 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork.

Serve fish with a dollop of mayonnaise on each. Makes 4 servings.

J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS Shrimp Meatballs (Ebi Dango)
Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune/TNS Whitefish fillets are gently simmered in a vermouth-spiked poaching liquid, then finished with butter, toasted almonds and a spritz of lemon.
Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS Couscous is tossed with diced butternut squash and fresh chives as a bed for Moroccan-spiced shrimp.
Roberto Rodriguez/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS Tarragon can be used as a bright punctuation to other foods, like in this beer-poached salmon with tarragon mayonnaise.
Moroccan Spiced Shrimp Over Couscous

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, peeled and diced

1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped

1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes, undrained

1 roasted red bell pepper (from a jar), rinsed and diced

1 cup chicken broth

Pinch saffron threads or ground saffron or 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric (optional)

1/4 teaspoon each: ground cumin, crushed red pepper flakes

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 cups baby spinach or baby kale or half of an 8-ounce bag frozen cut organic spinach, thawed and drained, about 1 cup

1 pound large (31 to 40 count) raw shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Couscous With Butternut and Chives (recipe follows)

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the onion; cook until slightly crisp but still tender, for 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic; cook for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes with their juice, the bell pepper, broth, saffron, cumin and pepper flakes.

Reduce heat to medium-low; cook until sauce is slightly reduced, for about 4 minutes. Season with the salt (about 1/2 teaspoon) and pepper. (Sauce can be made to this point up to several days in advance and refrigerated, covered. Rewarm before serving.)

When ready to cook the shrimp, reheat sauce over medium-high heat to a simmer. Stir in the spinach and heat through. Then stir in shrimp. Simmer, stirring often, until shrimp are cooked through, for 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice.

Spoon shrimp mixture over the couscous on a large platter. Sprinkle with the cilantro.

Makes 4 servings.

Couscous With Butternut and Chives

12 ounces peeled, seeded and diced, fresh butternut squash (about 2 generous cups)

2 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1 teaspoon salt

Pinch saffron threads or saffron powder (optional)

1 (10-ounce) box plain couscous

3 tablespoons fruity olive oil

1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh chives or scallion tops

Put the butternut squash and 2 tablespoons water into a microwave-safe bowl. Cover with plastic wrap vented at one corner. Microwave on high (100 percent power), stirring once or twice, for 4 minutes. Let stand. Drain.

Meanwhile, combine in a medium saucepan the broth, salt and saffron, if using. Heat to a simmer. Reduce heat to low, stir in the couscous and cover pan tightly. Remove from heat. Let stand until tender, for about 5 minutes. Fluff couscous with a fork. Stir in the olive oil, then fold in steamed butternut and the chives. Serve hot. Makes 6 servings.

Vermouth-Poached Fish Fillets

Heat a large, dry skillet over medium heat; add 1/2 cup sliced almonds. Toast, stirring, until golden-brown, for about 2 minutes. Transfer almonds to a bowl.

In same skillet, heat to a simmer 1 cup water, 1 cup dry white vermouth and 2 teaspoons salt. Add 2 boneless whitefish fillets to skillet; simmer until fish just turns opaque and flakes easily, for about 5 minutes.

Remove fillets; season with salt and pepper. Top with 2 tablespoons melted butter, toasted almonds and 1/4 cup finely chopped, fresh parsley. Serve with lemon wedges on the side for squeezing. Delicious with steamed fingerling potatoes and green beans.

Makes 2 servings.

Shrimp Meatballs (Ebi Dango)

1 pound shrimp, cleaned and ground or minced fine

2 scallions, trimmed and chopped fine

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce, divided

1 beaten egg

4 cups chicken or fish stock

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1 head Chinese (Napa) cabbage, about 1-1/2 pounds, in 1-inch cubes

8 dry mushrooms, reconstituted

Hot steamed rice, for serving

In a large bowl, stir together the shrimp, scallions, cornstarch, 1 teaspoon of the soy sauce and the egg.

In a large pot, season the stock with remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce and the sugar; bring to a boil. Drop spoonfuls of shrimp mixture into stock, and they will cook into dumplings. When they rise to liquid’s surface, they are done. Remove from pot and set aside.

Add the cabbage and mushrooms to pot. Cook for 7 to 8 minutes, covered. Return meatballs to pot to rewarm and serve with the hot rice, cabbage and mushrooms.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipe from “Japanese Country Cookbook,” by Russ Rudzinski.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.