Tony Tobin: gamekeeper turned poacher

Kitchen Diaries: Our celeb chef Tony Tobin makes poaching adventurous

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine June 2009Kitchen Diaries: Our celeb chef Tony Tobin makes poaching adventurousThe idea for this column came to me after the London Marathon. It would have stood no chance of occurring to me during the marathon because that particular odyssey was a hot mixture of joy and pain (mostly pain) that obliterated any culinary thoughts from my mind for a few thigh-searing hours. No, this idea came in the reflective hours afterwards. Back at home in Reigate, I immersed myself in a hot bath until the pain started to transform into ache. As the water (complete with a little lavender oil) gently soothed me back into humanity, it came to me... poaching. Poaching is a much-neglected element of the chef's skill set. Maybe it's just the modern obsession with flashy cooking that's done that? I often get the feeling that unless the TV chef is swishing ingredients around at speed, sprinkling rare ingredients and oils around like Jackson Pollock, it just doesn't cut it for a TV audience. If a flamb is like Quantum of Solace, poaching is like Pride and Prejudice - all subtlety and manners. Essentially, poaching is nothing more than cooking food by immersing ingredients into a liquid bath at the right temperature rather than applying heat through the surface of a pan (and searing fats) or the harshness of an oven. And like my post-marathon immersion, the liquid doesn't have to be just water. For fish, you can use milk. This will help to protect the wonderful sweetness that you risk ruining when you use a hot pan or grill. Back in February, I recommended the romantic among you to try eggs Benedict - the classic poached egg dish. Now, before I move on to more adventurous poachings, I'd like to share a few tricks of the trade with you when it comes to a perfectly poached egg. First, when your water is gently boiling, add a tablespoon of white wine vinegar but don't add salt. The vinegar helps to keep the white around the yolk - the mark of a really good poached egg. Second, using a slotted spoon, gently whirl the water round in the pan to create a mini whirlpool. When it has its own motion, stop and gently pour the egg from a cup into the centre. A soft fluffy cushion The combination of these two techniques will help to keep the white and yolk attached when it is in the water. However, for perfection you should also consider using a wooden spoon during the minute or two it will take to cook, to play keepy-up with this soft white ping-pong ball. The aim is to keep the whole thing gently away from the bottom of the pan. The result of all these actions will be a perfect poached egg. It should look like a soft white fluffy cushion (like the sort I rested my calves on after the marathon!). If not, your water may have been boiling a little too vigorously. But, hey, it's only an egg; try again! Now I realise, it is a bit of a shift from the ridiculous to the sublime - and one that is going to cost substantially more than a poached egg - but once you've mastered the eggs, why not try lobster? For poached lobster, you will need a different class of poaching liquid. A silky mixture of butter and water that the French call a 'beurre monte'. In truth, it is more butter than water but the idea is the same. You start by bringing three or four tablespoons of water to the boil in a small saucepan. Then add in a large dollop of unsalted butter and turn the heat down low. There should be the occasional rich bubble but the water will help to keep the fat in the butter from breaking. Then add your chunks of raw lobster meat and stir gently, poaching until the flesh turns opaque (usually this will take around four minutes - maybe less - but definitely don't overdo it). Now this is not a method that I would recommend to people watching their cholesterol or planning to run next year's marathon but it is utterly luxurious. The beurre monte seals in the sweetness and gives a sheen to the meat. This dish can be transformed to perfection with spaghettini or gnocchi and shallots plus a light, fragrant sauce. Finally - which is a shame as I've started to warm to my theme like a perfectly poached Tobin - consider poaching fruit in wine. You can poach pears, plums and other summer fruits in either red or white wine. The key to poached fruit is the 'spike' that you add into the recipe. This can be cinnamon, lemon grass, vanilla pods or ginger - but it needs something to cut through the sweetness. I would also add a dollop of really good mascarpone when serving... and perhaps a few Amaretto cookies for good measure. To conclude, poaching is not for sissies. It is an important - if often overlooked - part of the serious chef's armoury. So, next time the family is looking in need of a good healthy meal, don't think that your choices are just fry, grill or roast. Think of a perfect poached egg, and then think again.

Tony Tobin has been a regular on the BBC's Ready Steady Cook for over a decade and runs two acclaimed restaurants in Surrey: The Dining Room in Reigate and POST in Banstead.

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