Nearly ten years ago I was standing on the platform of the East Tsim Sha Tsui railway station in Kowloon waiting to board my train. It was early morning and I had hailed a taxi to take me from my hotel perched on the edge of Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong to the train station, where I was bound for my ultimate destination, Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong Province, to meet business associates upon my arrival there. Guangzhou, also known as Canton City, is only 75 miles northwest of Hong Kong but it was required that I first go through customs before boarding the express train in Shenzhen, just north of Kowloon. The express train whisked me through the lush countryside and I arrived at the station in Guangzhou amid a throng of thousands of people passing through the terminal and waited for my colleagues to arrive at the taxi stand to carry me off on another exciting adventure in China. I recognized their smiling faces from afar as their car approached curbside. My bags were quickly packed into the trunk and the first order of business in Guangzhou was lunch!
Guangdong Province in South China, sometimes referred to as Canton Province, is home to the most diverse of Chinese cuisines for a number of reasons. First of all, it has a temperate/tropical climate and an abundance of rainfall which enables tropical fruits, rice and an unfathomable array of vegetables to be easily grown. In addition, its proximity to the sea enables an abundance of fresh fish and seafood to be readily available at all times. Plentiful feed for livestock also means high-quality meat and poultry in abundance. Because of this, Cantonese chefs take great pride in their cooking and use fresh ingredients every day to retain the unique flavors and textures of each dish. The temperate climate has also encouraged the use of light and simple seasonings, unlike the hot and spicy ingredients that are distinctive in Hunan and Szechuan dishes.
As we walked into the immense open restaurant I marveled at the hundreds of fish tanks lining the walls, each filled with fish or squiggling creatures of the sea, most of which I did not recognize! Since I had no idea of the protocol that was to be used to order lunch I was guided by my colleagues… simply peruse the tanks and select what you want to eat! Having been used to ordering from a printed menu all my life I certainly hadn’t anticipated staring into the eyes of the creature that would momentarily be plated in front of me. I rose, however, to the occasion and selected a benign looking fish rather than one of the unknown creatures lurking mysteriously and staring at me unnervingly in the neighboring tanks! We were seated at our table and before we were even deep in business conversation our meal arrived. My fish was magnificent… wonderfully and simply steamed, lightly seasoned to bring out the incredible fresh flavor of the delicate flesh and served with the freshest of al dente vegetables.
As a result of that meal I gained a greater appreciation of the natural and delicate flavors of fresh fish that are attained not only by steaming but by poaching and baking in parchment as well. In Cantonese cuisine the flavors are often simply enhanced by the use of ginger, spring onions, sugar, salt and soy sauce. The judicious use of five-spice powder and white pepper is common as well.
For the salmon we recently prepared here in our kitchen the poaching liquid was lightly flavored with leeks, crisp carrots, several fresh bay leaves, celery and its leaves, a touch of lemon, a few peppercorns, a sprig of dill and a crisp white wine, all ingredients to enhance the distinctive flavor of the beautiful pink flesh. Pulling it all together was a velvety beurre blanc. Simple… delicious… and a wonderful entree that took my taste buds back to that delicious meal of fresh fish in Guangzhou a decade ago.
Poached Salmon with Beurre Blanc Sauce
For the poaching liquid add to a heavy 12-inch sauteuse over moderately high heat:
- 2 qt (8 cups) water
- 3 1/2 C dry white wine
- 1 carrot, peeled and cut in rounds
- 1 leek (white portion), cleaned and thinly sliced
- 1 stalk celery, leaves included, coarsely chopped
- 1 dill sprig
- 3 fresh bay leaves
- 1 slice fresh lemon
- 1/2 tsp whole black peppercorns
Bring poaching liquid to a simmer and adjust heat to barely simmer for 30 minutes. While the liquid is simmering assemble the ingredients for the beurre blanc and set aside:
- 1 – 2 large shallots, finely minced
- 1 C dry white wine
- 3 T fresh lemon juice
- 1 T heavy cream
- 12 T cold unsalted butter, cubed
When the poaching liquid has simmered for 30 minutes, add to the pan:
- the salmon fillets
Chef’s Note: Be sure there is enough liquid in the sauteuse to completely cover the salmon. Additional fillets will raise the liquid level in the pan. If there is question as to whether the amount of liquid is sufficent have a kettle of simmering water on the side in reserve.
Poach salmon for 12 minutes. While the salmon is poaching prepare the beurre blanc.
In a non-reactive saucepan over high heat add:
- the minced shallots
- the white wine
- the lemon juice
Reduce to 2 tablespoons. To the reduction add:
- the heavy cream
Once the liquid bubbles, reduce the heat to low and add approximately 1/3 of the butter, whisking, one cube at a time:
Remove pan from the heat and continue to whisk, adding the remaining butter one cube at a time.
Chef’s Note: The pan is removed from the heat at this time in order to maintain the emulsion.
- salt and white pepper to taste
Using a spatula gently transfer the salmon fillets to warmed plates for service. Nap with beurre blanc sauce and garnish with sprigs of fresh dill. Serve with new potatoes and/or al dente vegetables… Bon Appetit!
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