Poached Striped Bass
with Vodka Sauce
We own an actual fish poacher. It sits on top of our dining room armoire and I can’t recall having it down since we moved to San Francisco in 1992. Don’t look for it on my essentials page.
When I was surfing the New York Times Dining and Wine section the other day, I spied Poached Salmon with Vodka Sauce. That looked interesting, so I downloaded it to my “to cook” folder. There are over thirty recipes in that folder and more coming every week, so I don’t have a prayer of cooking them all. As time goes by, I delete the ones that no longer look interesting. This recipe will just be in the back of my head when I go to market. I didn’t really think about cooking a whole salmon, but I figured I could do it with a fillet.
We bought the fish poacher in Boston to poach a four-pound salmon for a party. In James Beard’s Theory and Practice of Good Cooking there is more than one recipe for poached fish and in my cooking-for-parties phase I poached a few salmon, as well as other fish and shellfish. I especially liked the Poached Fish with White Wine Sauce and Shellfish a la Nage, “,a la nage is the French term for a style of preparation in which shellfish are both cooked and served â€˜swimming’ in a white wine court bouillon and eaten hot, tepid or cold.” Shrimp, crayfish or small lobsters are excellent prepared in this manner.
I missed my regular Saturday morning trip to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, so Sunday we decided to go to the Farmers Market at the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael. This was our “regular Market” in the times that I opened the store on Saturday mornings. It’s bigger than the Ferry Plaza market; a few of the merchants in Marin are also at the Ferry Building, but most are different. It was a beautiful day and we sat at a table in the sun and ate a breakfast burrito and a tamale from Donna’s Tamales. Near the end of our rounds, at the back corner of the market, we stumbled upon this huge fish stand with smoked fish, prepared fish dishesâ€”soups and stews for take-homeâ€”and a wonderful array of fresh fish. A woman at one end of of the U-shaped counter was cutting up a whole halibut and next to that was a tub of whole Striped Bass, about two pounds each. Eureka!
They had two pound salmon fillets, which were lovely, but the back of my head said “I want to do a whole fish, by golly!” We picked out a shiny Striped Bass with shiny eyes and no fish scent, perfectly fresh. Stripers are prevalent in and around San Francisco Bay where, like salmon, they spawn in rivers, but live in the ocean. As luck would have it, we had bought a frozen pork shoulder steak for a stew, so we could lay the fish on top of that in the bottom of our cloth bag, keeping it cold while we made our way home.
Late Monday afternoon I got out the ingredients. I made fish stock in January and stored it in 3-cup bags in the freezer, so I put that in a pan to thaw on the stove. (Fish stock is easy to make, it only takes an hour or so, and the fish lady at the Market always has halibut bones.) I measured two cups, added half-a-cup of vermouth, the juice of one orange and one lemon and poured that into the poacher. Next, I laid down washed and trimmed scallions in the poacher as a bed for the fish. Scallions are big and beautiful this time of year, as you can see.
I got the fish out of the fridge, washed and salted and peppered and stuffed the cavity with fresh dill and parsley. I tied a piece of string around the belly of the beast to make a nice secure packet. I laid that on its scallion bed. Ready to cook. How hard is that? Technically, we’re steaming, not poaching. There’s only about 3 cups of liquid and with the poacher rack and the scallions under the fish, the liquid doesn’t even touch the fish. To poach, the fish would be in the liquid. No matter, poaching sounds better. I might have passed over the recipe had it said steamed salmon.
After 20 minutes I checked the fish with a fork. Not quite done. I left it on for another five minutes and it was just right. I removed it to a warm platter, skinned it with the side of a fork and my fingers (hot!) and put it in the warm oven to await its sauce.
“Pour cooking liquid into small saucepan. Add vodka and bring to boil; reduce to 1/2 cup.” That’s what the recipe says. I’ll be here the rest of the night if I reduce in a small saucepan! I started with 3-cups of liquid and then there’s the fish and scallion juices, that’s a lot of liquid to reduce. I put the cooking liquid back in the poacher to reduceâ€”five times as much surface areaâ€”so it only took about ten minutes. While I was reducing the sauce, Carol roasted the asparagusâ€”tossed with salt, pepper and olive oilâ€”in the toaster oven (another essential tool). We much prefer roasted asparagus to steamed.
That is that. All that remains is the eating. I’m here to tell you that this dinner was magnificent. The striped bass is moist and sweet, the sauce is unctuous, carrying the rich flavors of the reduced stock and fish juices, scallions and butter; along with the bright sweetness of orange and lemon. I don’t know what the vodka does, but it doesn’t hurt. The recipe says it serves four, but we two had only a small piece of fishâ€”along with head, tail and bonesâ€”left on the platter. Maybe it was so good that we ate more than normal, but a two-pound fish, including head and tail, won’t serve four.