A large fish poached and served whole makes for a dramatic presentation and a first-class dining experience. You don’t need a fancy fish poacher to pull this off. Aluminum foil works beautifully in the galley, on the grill, over a campfire, or in the kitchen. Here are the basics.
This past winter, we’ve been dining on sheefish (inconnu) in the six-to-eight-pound class. Measuring 25 – 30 inches, these fish of the far north are just small enough to fit into our oven and serve whole.
Because sheefish is bony and not easily filleted, they are well-suited to this cooking method; when served, the meat comes easily off the bones. With firm white meat in large, sweet, flakey chunks, sheefish are comparable to striped bass, European seabass, Japanese seabass (suzuki) and similar fish. Here in Alaska, foil poaching works beautifully with salmon, rockfish, char and small halibut.
Poaching and steaming recipes need not be complicated. Although we generally start with a court bouillon or dashi and add Chardonnay when we have it, equal parts of water and Chardonnay alone make a perfectly acceptable basic poaching stock. No wine on hand? A little water – enough to keep the fish bathed in steam – is sufficient. Anything else is a matter of taste. We’ve found it difficult to improve on a combination of sea salt, freshly cracked pepper, lemon, butter and bacon. Olive oil makes a good substitution for butter and bacon.
One of the beautiful things about this recipe is that the ingredients can be prepared beforehand so that they’re ready for a shore lunch or camp dinner to celebrate a special catch.
Incidentally, wakame (dried kelp) and dried bonito flakes are an ideal base for fish stock for campers and sailors. These ingredients are light, easy to store, and last indefinitely. This dashi-style stock can be enhanced with salt, soy sauce, white wine, sherry or sake.
See more of Detlef Buettner’s beautiful art here.
Poached fish is an excellent meal to serve with freshly baked French bread or sourdough bread. We and our guests enjoyed the above sheefish served on saffron rice cooked in a clam juice broth, spooning the poaching broth onto our rice and fish.
Whole Sheefish Poached in Foil
1 whole fish, scaled, gutted, gilled, rinsed off and patted dry.
Aluminum foil sufficient to entirely wrap around the fish. We double wrap to prevent leaking.
Poaching/steaming liquid – approximately 1/3 cup per pound of fish. (About 2 1/2 cups for an 8-pound fish.) See below for easy poaching liquid recipe.
1 tbsp butter per pound of fish. (An 8-pound fish takes 1 stick of butter.)
Very thin slices of lemon to cover one side of fish.
Strips of bacon to cover one side of fish. (about 5 strips for an 8-pound fish)
Lemon juice to rinse stomach cavity – approximately 2 tbsp for an 8-pound fish
Sea salt and freshly cracked pepper to rub into cavity and both sides of fish – approximately 2 – 3 tbsp sea salt for an 8-pound fish
Place large baking sheet in oven and preheat to 450 °F.
Arrange aluminum foil on flat surface. Thoroughly coat foil with butter where fish will be placed.
Rub lemon juice into fish’s stomach cavity.
Use a very sharp knife to make shallow diagonal slashes spaced about 1 inch apart from the head of the fish to the tail. Do this on both sides.
Rub salt and pepper mixture onto both sides of fish and into cavity
Place fish onto buttered foil.
Rub butter into fish’s cavity. Rub remaining butter on top side of fish.
Arrange lemon slices on top side of fish.
Arrange bacon slices atop fish.
Pour poaching liquid along the sides of fish, taking care not to rinse the off the top of the fish.
Close foil around fish and place on baking sheet (or on grill, etc.) Cook until a few dorsal fin rays can be easily pulled from fish.
Total time will be approximately 5 – 6 minutes per pound. An 8-pound fish will cook for 40 minutes.
Note: We like to remove the bacon when the fish is finished cooking, crisp it up in a pan, and return the bacon to the top of the fish prior to serving. The bacon drippings can be drizzled atop the fish as well.
Poaching Liquid Recipe
3 cups water
5 inch square of wakame (dried kelp – available in Asian grocers.)
5 grams (0.17 ounces) dried bonito flakes
1/4 teaspoon sea salt (or 1/2 teaspoon soy sauce)
1 tbsp miso paste (optional)
Optional: replace 1/2 cup water with white wine or sake
Place water in pan and heat over high heat. Add wakame and salt, stir occasionally and continue heating but do not boil.
When Wakame is soft, add bonito flakes.
Cook briefly in steaming water and stir gently. Do not boil.
Pour mixture through wire strainer into pan or bowl.
If desired, return strained soup to low heat and stir in miso paste till dissolved.