Why It Works
- Cooking fish à la nage is an incredibly easy and quick way to prepare fish, done all in one pan and then served directly from there.
- The method offers the benefits of both steaming and poaching, gently cooking and flavoring the fish in an aromatic broth.
- Sautéing aromatic vegetables like onion, ginger, carrots, and fennel in oil before adding to the poaching liquid amplifies the flavors.
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, carrots, and fennel in oil 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 some recipes that run the gamut of flavor, from a nod to the the classic with clams and halibut in a white wine-based broth to a much bolder, Thai-style number with cod, coconut milk, lime juice, and fish sauce.
Keep in mind that you can change things up however you wish: All sorts of fish will work in each of these variations, 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 halibut and cod, while responsibly farmed salmon is absolutely fine in place of the wild stuff. You could also use a firm white-fleshed fish (like halibut, cod, or bass) in place of the salmon. There's really nothing strict about it.
This recipe, made with summer squash and cherry tomatoes, is by far the most delicate. 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?
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 medium carrots, diced
1 small head fennel, diced
2 small summer squash and/or zucchini, diced
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
1 (2-inch) knob peeled fresh ginger, cut into thick slices and gently bruised with blunt side of knife
1 cup dry white wine
3 cups water
2 parsley sprigs
2 tarragon sprigs
4 (6-ounce) boneless, skinless salmon fillets
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 scallion, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced on a bias
Chopped parsley and tarragon, for garnish
In a large, straight-sided sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add carrot, fennel, squash, onion, and ginger and cook, stirring, until vegetables are softened and onion is translucent, about 3 minutes.
Add wine and cook, stirring, until reduced by about half and raw alcohol smell has mostly cooked off, about 4 minutes. Add water, parsley sprigs, and tarragon sprigs. Season salmon fillets with salt and pepper, then nestle in cooking liquid; they should be partially submerged. Bring liquid to a simmer, then cover pan and lower heat. Cook, covered, until salmon is medium-rare and registers 120°F (49°C) on an instant-read thermometer, about 4 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, toss tomatoes with scallion and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.
Using a slotted spatula, transfer salmon fillets to bowls. Season cooking broth with salt and pepper and ladle around salmon along with the vegetables. Spoon tomatoes and scallions all around, garnish with chopped parsley and tarragon, and serve right away.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 27g||34%|
|Saturated Fat 5g||23%|
|Total Carbohydrate 16g||6%|
|Dietary Fiber 5g||17%|
|Total Sugars 8g|
|Vitamin C 26mg||129%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|