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There are a lot of ways to prepare fish. You can broil it, fry it, grill it, sear it in a pan, or roast it. You can cure it for ceviche or gravlax, cold- or hot-smoke it, or even eat it completely raw. One of my favorites, though, is to take my fish for a swim.
"Take it for a swim? Even though it's dead?" you may ask.
Mais oui, mes amis, that's exactly right! All you have to do is cook your fish à la nage.* Translated literally, it means something like "in the swim," which makes next to no sense in English, so let's call it "swimming style." To put it another way, we might describe it as poached. But "poached" doesn't fully get at the idea behind an à la nage preparation. Way back in the day, the term referred to a specific way of cooking shellfish in a court bouillon, a light broth acidified with white wine or lemon juice. In more recent times, it's loosened to include any kind of fish cooked in a light broth with vegetables, herbs, and other aromatic ingredients, then served with that broth and those vegetables.
*Rhymes with garage.
I love it for a few reasons. First, it's an incredibly easy way to prepare fish, since you can do it all in one pan and then serve it directly from there. It's quick, too—just whip up a broth that's infused with whatever ingredients you've decided to include, add the fish, and poach it, covered, until just cooked through. It's perfect in the summer, when lighter dishes appeal more than gut-busters. And while I've never been bothered by the smell of a fish roasting in my home, I know some folks can be sensitive to that; those of you who are may be interested to know that this gentle poaching in a closed pan leads to absolutely minimal fish smell lingering in your kitchen later. Finally, it's a preparation that's open to endless variation.
Because the fish is only partially submerged, this cooking method offers the benefits of both steaming and poaching. Poaching is a gentle cooking method, but steaming is even gentler; the portion of the fish above the liquid level cooks more slowly, making the method that much more foolproof. Meanwhile, because it's half submerged, the fish still manages to flavor—and, to some degree, be flavored by—the poaching liquid below.
Making an à la nage preparation is very simple. I start by sautéing aromatic vegetables, like onion, garlic, celery, and fennel, in oil or butter until translucent.
Then I add the poaching liquid, which can include wine, water, fish stock, clam juice, you name it. If I add wine or another alcohol, I'll usually add it first and let some of its alcohol boil off before adding the rest of the liquid.
Then I nestle the fish into the broth—which should be just deep enough to partially cover the fish—bring it to a simmer, and cover with a lid. When the fish is cooked, it's ready to serve, typically in just minutes.
To get you started, I've come up with three recipes that run the gamut of flavor, from an incredibly light and delicate one featuring wild salmon with summer squash and tomatoes to a much bolder, Thai-style number with cod, coconut milk, lime juice, and fish sauce.
Below are descriptions of each one, but keep in mind that you can change things up however you wish: All sorts of fish will work in each of these preparations, so it's much better to get the best-quality (and the most sustainable) fish you can find than to stick to the specific types of fish mentioned here. Wild striped bass, for instance, would stand in perfectly for the halibut and cod shown below, while responsibly farmed salmon is absolutely fine in place of the wild stuff. Frankly, you could use salmon in any of these, or a firm white-fleshed fish (like halibut, cod, or bass) in place of the salmon. There's really nothing strict about it.
Salmon à la Nage With Summer Vegetables
This recipe, made with summer squash and cherry tomatoes, is by far the most delicate of the three variations here. If you're looking for a flavor bomb, skip down to one of the other two, because this is not it. Why so delicate? Well, sometimes I feel that in the search for ever-bolder tastes that jolt our mouths to attention, we lose sight of the benefits of subtlety.
Summer squash, for instance, is a very mild vegetable, especially when poached, as it is here—there's really not much opportunity to concentrate its flavor. I'm okay with that in this case. I add a few aromatics to kick things up, like a little ginger, tarragon, and lemon, but the overall flavor is gentle, quiet. The salmon is medium-rare, the broth clean, bright, but not jarring.
In my mind, I'm eating a bowl of this on a porch in the Rocky Mountains, looking out at a valley that rises up to green summer slopes and snow-capped summits, with a really cold, crisp white next to me, sweating in its glass. I have no idea why, but honestly, doesn't that sound perfect?
Halibut à la Nage With Clams, Fennel, and White Wine
A lot of classic nage recipes include shellfish, so this one is a nod in that direction. The broth is white wine–based, then topped up with water. In all nage recipes, the fish gently flavors the broth as it cooks, but here we're doubling down on that: When the clams open, they release their juices into the broth, flavoring it even further. In some ways, this one is like a clear chowder, done à la minute, as all à la nage preparations should be.
Cod à la Nage With Coconut Milk, Lemongrass, and Lime
The most flavor-forward of the three, this one calls up Thai cuisine, using coconut milk, lemongrass, ginger, lime juice, fish sauce, and fresh chili peppers. If you want a richer broth, go ahead and use all coconut milk for the liquid; it'll be thick and intense and, frankly, a little fatty. If you want to lighten it a bit, you can substitute half the coconut milk with vegetable or fish broth.
Choisissez-vous—the choice is yours.