One of the best meals I ever made was before I knew anything about cooking, and that was the poached whole chicken with tarragon in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II.
Until that moment, I had no idea a chicken could taste so good, or that there was anything in the world like the bechamel sauce made with that poaching liquid infused with tarragon.
As usual, Julia's instructions were lengthy and detailed to a fault, but resulted in immaculate flavors. Since that time, I've poached lots of things--and not just eggs. There's something extremely pleasant--meditative, even--about the act of poaching. No clanging pots or spitting flames. Just you, your ingredients and very little else standing in the way of pristine flavors.
The January issue of Martha Stewart Living contains a four-page spread on poaching for which I wrote the text, the captions and a short how-to for poaching fish, chicken and fruit. Again, I had nothing to do with the recipes or selecting what to cook. That was all done in-house.
The dishes all involve vary spare, clean flavors and little fat. That should please those of you watching calories. There's halibut poached with lemon-fennel court bouillon, poached chicken with salsa verde and an intriguing pear poached with green tea.
This is the second halibut recipe I've run across in the last month (December Food & Wine being the other), only to be told at the local Whole Foods that halibut is out of season and won't be back in season until March. News to me.
I also remain unsettled on the issue of testing fish and poultry for doneness while poaching. One problem with fish: they are subject to breaking if you mess with them while they're suspended in the poaching liquid. So how do you know when they're done? One method I like is tying a fillet in cheese cloth. That makes handling the fish easier and certainly helps when moving the fish out of the poaching liquid onto the plate. But then you have to remove the cheese cloth.
Also, using an instant-read thermometer on a chicken breast has its drawbacks. The photo in the Martha Stewart spread shows a thermometer being plunged vertically into a chicken breast. But we all know that the actual sensor on a conventional instant-read thermometer is about 1 1/2 inches above the tip of the probe. (We all know that, right?) You really have to insert the probe horizontally and almost precisely into the middle of the breast to get an accurate reading. All this while trying to juggle a wet chicken breast that's about 160 degrees hot.
Sometimes knowing when things are done is more about touching, eyeballing, smelling the food--things nobody can show you in a magazine article. You just have to practice to learn.