By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow CookIt's not always easy getting kids to eat fish. Some automatically gag at the very aroma of seafood--even when it doesn't smell at all. But the kids in my food appreciation classes adored the poached salmon we made this week, especially when it was smothered in a creamy dill sauce. (Some requested it without the sauce, and I have to admit the really little kids--pre-K and Kindergarteners, were not entirely enthusiastic.)
We're still in Scandinavia and I was inspired by a recent "Nordic Day" in D.C. Public Schools sponsored by various embassies. The Norwegian embassy, for instance, flew in 10,000 pounds of salmon for the event. Salmon and dill go naturally together, as do cucumber and dill, completing our meal with a classic Scandinavian salad.
Poaching is one of my favorite cooking methods for fish. It's so gentle and results in the most tender and moist salmon with the essential flavor of the fish intact. Plus, we can easily set up a skillet with poaching liquid on our portable gas burner so that the children can actually watch the fish cook in front of them on our prep table.
Salmon also is rich in heart-health Omega-3 fatty acids.
But you may want to start with the cucumber salad. The flavors need time to meld, and you can easily make it hours or even a day ahead and refrigerate it. Peel three large cucumbers, then slice them in half lengthwise. Use a teaspoon (or even better, a grapefruit spoon) to scoop out the seeds. Cut the cucumbers into thin crescents and toss these with 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt in a colander. Set the colander in a pan and allow the cucumbers to drain for 1 or 2 hours. Use your hands to squeeze more liquid out of the cucumbers.
In a mixing bowl, combine 1/3 cup white vinegar, 2 tablespoons cider vineagar and granulated sugar to taste (about 1/4 cup). The finished dressing should be sweet and sour. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, then add 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill. Toss the cucumbers in the dressing and serve.
Likewise, make the dill sauce ahead so the flavors have a chance to develop. It's easy. Simply mix together 1/4 cup mayonnaise, 1/4 cup sour cream, 2 scallions, thinly sliced, the juice from 1/2 lemon, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill and salt and pepper to taste. You can keep it in the fridge until it's needed.
To make the poaching liquid for the salmon, peel 1/2 onion and cut into thin slices. Toss this into a medium saucepan along with 1 small carrot, peeled and sliced into thin rounds, 1 small celery stalk, thinly sliced, 4 sprigs thyme, 2 sprigs parsley, 1 generous piece lemon peel and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Cover this with 5 cups water, bring almost to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain the liquid and discard the vegetables. (You can use 3/4 cups dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc, and reduce the amount of water, but I chose not to bring wine to school.)
To poach the salmon, use individual 6-ounce fillets. If possible, choose wild-caught Alaska salmon rather than farmed salmon. For environmental reasons, ocean scientists continue to discourage the consumption of farmed salmon. But most salmon sold in stores--typically labeled "Atlantic salmon"--is farmed. To find wild caught salmon, you must seek it out. It usually comes from Alaska.
Place the fillets in a heavy skillet and cover with the finished poaching liquid. Bring the liquid almost to a boil (200 degrees, as measured with an instant-read thermometer), then reduce heat and simmer until the fish is just cooked through.
This is always the hardest part poaching fish--deciding when it's done. I've found the easiest way is to insert the point of paring knife into the middle of a fillet at its thicket point. Wait 5 seconds, then press the knife tip to your lower lip. It should feel very warm, but not hot.
Use a spatula to remove the fish immediately from the pan. You can serve it warm, or chilled. with a big dollop of dill sauce and cucumber salad on the side.