I will spare you the details of the misunderstanding. Suffice it to say that the project began in the laundry room of a comfortable, old-fashioned Maine mansion. In the classic deep double sink, embedded like a pair of champagne bottles in outsized buckets of ice, were two large fish. Two very large fish. One of them measured three feet eight inches. The other was longer. Both were commensurately plump.
The monsters were destined to become cold salmon with green mayonnaise for seventy wedding guests. It was my job to cook them. It was not required that I cook them whole. It wasn’t even suggested. One can only suppose the devil made me do it.
After all, it stands to reason that anyone not actually possessed would have poached the salmon in pieces, then reassembled the parts. A bit of decor in appropriate places and nobody the wiser.
But there’s something about the challenge of cooking creatures that size that excites the latent vanity of even the most modest chef. When the chef is not any too modest, and when her employer is also a skilled cook and contemplator of challenges, the result is bound to be something like Poached Salmon a la Bathtub.
The fish were served proudly seamless, glistening with aspic and wreathed with nasturtium flowers a tour de force of no mean proportions for which we garnered much congratulation.
The inspiration came from dimly remembered stories about how the Indians lived. According to the leader of my old Brownie troop, the Indians had cooked large objects in hollowed logs filled with water. They heated the water by dripping hot stones into it. We did exactly the same thing, lowering rather than dropping the stones, in deference to the bathtub, and adding wine, lemons, etc., which the Indians did not.
If you acquire a large fish and wish to follow our example, you will need:
1. A bathtub. It has to be porcelain, uncracked and unchipped in the business section, so you can scrub it clean enough and so it won’t melt when you put the stones in. It should be small, so as to require the smallest amount of water and seasonings. And it should be close to the kitchen, for obvious reasons. (Allow me, on the basis of experience, to suggest that a bathtub on the second floor at the top of a narrow flight of rickety stairs is not a good idea.)
2. Rocks. These should be cobbles, granite, brick, or another explosion proof material. They shouldn’t weigh much more than five or six pounds, since you must handle them when they’re hot.
3. A support for the fish. This could be a section of bookshelf wrapped well in tinfoil, a large grill from a barbecue unit, or any big sheet of something rigid that isn’t poison or peculiarly flavored and doesn’t weigh much. You need it to support the fish while it cooks and while it cools. It needn’t be exactly fish length, especially if you wind the fish tight enough with...
4. Cheesecloth, lots of cheesecloth.
You will need the seasonings that are commonly used with poached fish lemons, peppercorns, mustard and/or coriander seeds, celery, carrots, onions, parsley, and of course, white wine. You can make a proper court-bouillon if you are feeling ambitious, but a big fish means a lot of liquid, and it’s not really necessary. You will, however, need at least enough of the seasonings to stuff the fish partially.
Be sure there are plenty of tea towels, pot holders, and similar articles on hand. Start thinking about a presentation platter. We were able to use the marble top of a Victorian hall table, but only because someone strong enough to lift it happened to be handy.
Having someone strong and long-armed to help is a good idea in general. Otherwise, just lowering the salmon into its waiting bathtub takes a bit of engineering.
Begin by putting the rocks (enough to pave the tub by about one-third) into a cold oven. Turn the heat to 200 F. and bake 20 minuted. Raise the heat to 375 F. and bake at least 1 1/2 hours more.
Heat several large pots of water while you are heating the rocks. Put seasonings in if you’re inclined toward court-bouillon. Bathtubs and giant fish vary so much that it’s hard to suggest quantities, but a 4-foot fish in a 5-foot tub will require about 10 to 15 gallons of liquid, 3 pounds each of carrots and celery, 5 or 6 big onions, 8 lemons, 2 bunches of parsley, 5 or 6 bay leaves, and 1/4 cup peppercorns.
Of course, you won’t need nearly so much if you just use the seasonings to stuff the fish. This “stuffing” is partly to provide flavor and partly to keep the top and bottom of the fish slightly ajar so the heat can get all the way to the backbone from both directions.
Lay out four long pieces of cheesecloth in a crisscross to make a square and lay the fish thereon. Insert the vegetables, cut in rough chunks. Completely wrap the fish in cheesecloth, pulling it tight. Tie it in a few places with kitchen twine. This binding up will help the fish keep its shape during the cooking process. Put the fish on its support and let it come to room temperature.
Clean the bathtub. First scrub mightily with cleanser, than rinse with the greatest possible thoroughness. After you’ve given the final rinse, go back and wipe out the whole tub with a vinegar-soaked cloth. Rinse again. Fill the tub with hot tap water and let it heat thoroughly.
Okay everybody ready? Drain the tub. Lower in the fish on its support. Pour the heated (seasoned) water over and around the fish. Position a heated rock on a tea towel and lower it into the water. Roll the rock off the towel, as close to the fish as it will go without touching. Position the rest in the same way.
Now inspect the water level. If it doesn't come halfway up the fish, add hot tap water until it does. Arm yourself with a small saucepan and start ladeling the hot water over the fish. Keep it up, concentrating on the thicker sections and not worrying over much about the head. A fish four inches thick will take about an hour.
When you think the fish is cooked, use a razor blade to cut right through the cheesecloth into the fish at the thick part near the backbone. As soon as the flesh there is almost opaque, the cooking is complete. A thin layer of still-translucent meat next to the bone is okay. Held heat will continue the cooking for some time after the tub is drained.
Let the fish cool in situ, if you can. There are a few things more awkward to handle than a big, hot, wet fish.
The thing should, however, still be slightly tepid when you transfer it to the serving platter, because a warm fish is so much easier to peel. Film the platter and the support with cold water so the fish will slide around easily. Move the fish gently off the support onto the platter, proceeding cautiously so it doesn’t break. Cut away the cheesecloth.
Remove and discard the stuffing. Carefully peel away most of the fish skin, leaving a decorative bit near the tail and, of course the head. Have a flat knife handy in case you need to help free the creamy pink meat.
Now either glaze the salmon with aspic (see your all-purpose cookbook) or cover the exposed portion with plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out.
To chill the fish and keep it cold, put the platter on a strong support back in the faithful bathtub. Surround it with ice. Be sure the support is tall enough to keep the platter out of the melted ice.
At serving time surround the fish with leaves and flowers and pass a nice green sauce separately.