Sometimes the newest trends in cooking aren’t necessarily the best. The court bouillon is a French technique so old it has nearly been forgotten, but you can’t beat it for adding flavor.
A court bouillon is a quickly made stock. If you’ve had a poached salmon, you’re probably familiar with the idea. Taste one fish cooked in water and another poached in a wine-and-herb-enhanced liquid and you’ll realize the difference immediately.
But there is a whole range of possible preparations involving court bouillon that use other foods-everything from beef to vegetables.
Making a court bouillon is easy-it’s just a quick stock enhanced by some sort of freshening acidity. Simmer sliced onions, carrots, peppercorns and fresh herbs for 10 or 15 minutes, add a healthy dose of sharp white wine, and you have a beautiful cooking medium-not just for the oft-poached salmon but for lean fish as well.
You can improvise from there. Try a fennel court bouillon (water or fish stock with fennel, wine and, if they’re handy, fresh herbs) to cook bass, cod and sole.
Move further away from the classical edge and poach fish in a combination of apple cider, onion and cinnamon. Shrimp become brilliantly flavored when the poaching liquid is infused with fresh chiles.
Replace the fish with chicken breast, and add plenty of eye-opening spices-anise, allspice, curry and plenty of acidity.
The poaching liquid not only gives flavor, it also soaks up some of whatever is being cooked in it-becoming a fortified stock that can be refrigerated or frozen for later use in soups and sauces. Or you can reduce the cooking liquid right away to make a quick sauce for what you’ve cooked.
Poaching is one of the gentlest forms of cooking as well. You’ve got to work hard to overcook even the most delicate fish.
Finally, poaching in court bouillon is a flavorful way of cooking without adding calories (unless, of course, you emulsify lots and lots of butter into the reduced liquid for a sauce-something we recommend enthusiastically).
It seems almost immoral to boil filet mignon, but poached in fresh beef broth with celery root and leeks, lemon and coriander, it is a revelation of flavor and melting tenderness. Use plenty of broth as a sauce (adding butter or olive oil at the end to compose an elegant “stew’), and strain what’s left of this court bouillon for an amazing, fortified beef stock.
And why boil vegetables in salted water when you can poach them in something that’s delicious in itself-a light vegetable or chicken stock packed with fresh herbs? Vegetables that will be served cold are particularly enhanced by being cooked in a quick stock. Just don’t add any acidity-green vegetables will turn brown.
As with all basic techniques, matters of finesse make all the difference:
* Since most court bouillons are distinguished by their acidity, it should be added just before you cook the main item to maintain the freshness of flavor.
* Saute or sweat the flavoring vegetables first to enhance their flavor.
* Always strain and reserve any of this valuable cooking liquid for further use.
Here, as in all matters of the stove, reducing a method to its basics lays bare the underlying principles (in this case, infusing food with the flavor of the cooking medium) and frees your imagination to explore what is possible.