If braising is for winter and grilling for summer, where does poaching belong? Seasonlessness is not even poaching’s biggest problem; cooking anything in water runs the significant risk of being confused with that most fearsome of British cliches--the boiled dinner. Of course done improperly, poaching is indeed boiling, or worse, the heave-worthy warming through often suffered at the hands of well-meaning aunts. Done correctly though, poaching is terrific.
If you simmer water before slipping something in, say carrots or cubes of beef, you are poaching. But as simple principles so often belie nuance, so too are the details of a quality poach crucial. To start, poaching requires that your liquid truly simmers. Food-science people will tell you this occurs around 180 degrees (f), but rather than clipping a thermometer to your apron and nervously checking every few moments, learn what this looks and sounds like. Basically the liquid should gently, just audibly bubble. Anything more and you are boiling; less and you are Aunt Listeria. If you are romantic (or French) you might refer to your pot as smiling, although this puts you in the same camp as those who clip thermometers to their aprons.
Next you must flavor your poaching liquid with aromatic vegetables, herbs and salt. Add these things along with the cold water; as the liquid comes to a simmer it will extract flavor. A standard mirepoix (carrot, celery, onion) will always work, especially when a bay leaf and several white peppercorns are included. In fact, the addition of acid in the form of white wine and lemon juice to the above will roughly achieve a court boullion--that most classic of poaching liquids. Fancier additions like tomato and fennel add a Mediterranean note, but do avoid anything from the Brassica family (broccoli, kale etc.) as they tend to dominate.
Perhaps the best thing to put into a court bouillon is very fresh salmon. The fish should be skinned and searched for pin-bones; I like mine cut into chunks before poaching for ten minutes. The result is mild and distinctly savory. If you brush a few ramekins with olive oil before filling with your poached fish and vegetables you can chill the result until service. Turn each out onto salad plates and garnish with lemon slices and parsley for a lovely timbale starter. I often give precisely this to my daughter; it reminds me of those commercials where cats are lovingly served crystal platters of food by gloved hands.
Chicken and tender beef or pork may all work here too, but you must increase the cooking time, especially with poultry. In fact, let’s briefly touch on the science(y) aspect here. As cooking techniques go, poaching is a very efficient heat delivery mechanism. The poachee is surrounded by a dense, evenly heated medium (the liquid) which penetrates crevices and quickly transfers its heat. Compared with roasting where hot air swirls about or grilling where each side is independently cooked, poaching is far quicker and far less likely to go wrong. The result is food that consistently emerges moist, tender and free of burn. The downside to all this mild pleasantness is just that: crispy, fatty, caramelized goodness will never result from a poach. Generally, lean, skinless meats that might otherwise become tough do well poached, but do use common sense in selecting your mark. Sea bass? Brilliant! A baby goat? No.
You may experiment with other liquids. Assuming refrigerators frequently contain bottles of left-over red wine, the most delicious poached eggs are at your fingertips. Fill a skillet or small saucepan with whatever scraps of red wine you have (Beaujolais being the best and most obvious choice). Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer. Slip in a few eggs and lightly poach for salads or dinner-worthy eggs Benedict. If you are nostalgic for the 60s, poach clove-studded pears in Port, or, if you don’t wish to waste $60 worth of booze, orange juice. A whole sub-genre of milk-poaching exists too, but I don’t have any experience there--anybody?
Dietitians like poaching because, unlike every other cooking method, the addition of fat is unnecessary. I suppose this is true right up until one douses the eggs with hollandaise or spreads the poached salmon flakes on buttered toast points. This is an important point, actually. Poaching is really just an efficient way to cook things for a relatively neutral result--a mechanism for creating a mild, always appropriate edible. And while it pains me to do so, on this point I must agree with the dietitians. Slathering on the mayo post-fact might be desirable, but some very satisfying results can also be had when one allows a good poach to speak for its mild-mannered self.