Poaching is a method of cooking that involves simmering meat (usually poultry or fish) in a herb-infused liquid (often wine, broth, or both). Poached chicken. Sounds boring, right? Well, yes and no. By itself, it isn't much more than a staple for dieters, but poached chicken is a basic recipe that can easily lead to many more delightful dishes. Think of it as a workhorse recipe - unsexy but extremely versatile.

Chicken salad? Poach that chicken! Tortilla soup? Best served over a mound of succulent shredded chicken. Chicken quesadillas are tastiest when the peppers and Monterey Jack ooze over perfectly cooked chunks of tender chicken (don't forget the cilantro). Chicken caesar salad is one of my favorite lunch entrees, but it's miserable when the chicken is bland and dry and unappetizing. Any number of casseroles, soups, stews, and savory pies call for precooked chicken. If you cook it correctly, a nice poached chicken breast with a dollop of chevre and a sprinkle of fresh herbs makes a fine main dish.

But there's the rub. Most people have no idea how to transform a plain, raw chicken breast into something that actually tastes good. Chicken is a fickle beastie. Once skinned it has very little of the unctuous fat that makes everything taste better, and it can easily become dry, chewy, and utterly flavorless. Truth is, few people without our sneff's gifts are able to pan-sear chicken to plump and juicy perfection. Poaching the chicken is a good alternative for a couple of reasons.

First off, the broth in which the chicken is simmered flavors the meat completely, so you don't wind up with tasty-on-the-outside, rubbery-on-the-inside poultry. Secondly, there's no added fat in the poaching process, so the meat doesn't become butterlogged and greasy (not that there's anything wrong with butter, but sometimes you want to keep things a little lighter). Lometa has a lovely grilled chicken recipe here on E2, but grilling can be a messy (and seasonal) affair, and poaching is warm and indoorsy.

One of the dandy things about poaching is that you can easily vary the final flavor of the chicken by switching out the herbs used in the poaching liquid. Though it's certainly possible to poach a whole chicken, this recipe is for smaller portions and includes directions for poaching two boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

Poaching the Chicken

For two boneless, skinless chicken breasts:

Note that you want about two or three cups of cooking liquid per chicken breast when you poach. The chicken must be covered by the liquid at all times during the cooking process. The flavorings are really up to you; think of this as a guideline recipe.

A small bunch (6 to 8 stems) of fresh tarragon
4 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
2 garlic cloves, gently crushed but still pretty much whole
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 cup sherry or white wine (really any brand will do, but not too sweet, dear)
1 cup low sodium chicken broth (or homemade stock) 1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
1/2 white onion, coarsely chopped
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, split
kosher salt

Make a bouquet garni: Tie tarragon stems, thyme, bay leaves, and peppercorns in a small square of cheesecloth. Combine the bouquet garni, garlic, sherry, chicken broth, celery, onion, and 4 cups water in a medium pot, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat, and let the broth simmer for 5 minutes so that all the flavors have a chance to develop.

Ligtly salt the chicken breasts on both sides and add them to the gently simmering broth. Make sure they are completely immersed in the liquid, and allow them to simmer uncovered for seven minutes. When that time is up, take the pot off the flame, cover it tightly, and allow the carryover cooking to finish the chicken. Don't peek, just let the chicken cool in its cooking liquid for thirty minutes to an hour. This prevents the chicken from drying out, and produces a juicy little bird breast that's perfect for chicken salad.

Other nice additions to the cooking liquid include carrots, sweet bell pepper, spicy red pepper flakes, lemon zest (be sparing with this pungent stuff unless your recipe calls for very lemony chicken), and almost any combination of fresh or dried herbs. Remember that dried herbs tend to impart a stronger flavor, so adjust the recipe accordingly and don't worry about tying the dried herbs up in cheesecloth.

For Mexican dishes, a bouquet garni made with Mexican oregano, cumin, cilantro stems, a cinnamon stick (which adds a wonderful, earthy, hard-to-place yet distinct flavor), chili powder, marjoram, bay leaves, and thyme (or a combination of all of these dried herbs) is very tasty. You might also want to substitute a half-cup of tequila for the cup of sherry when poaching chicken that's intended for Mexican dishes (just add a bit more chicken broth or water to make up for the liquid loss). I also add extra garlic and a crushed serrano pepper to the cooking liquid.

For Asian dishes, try adding spices such as ginger, Vietnamese mint, Thai basil, citrus peel (lime is especially nice), star anise, lemongrass, five spice powder, kaffir lime leaves, or Szechuan peppercorns. Rice wine vinegar or sake are good substitues for the sherry or white wine in Asian-influenced poached chicken dishes. A squirt or two of good soy sauce never hurt anyone (but if you add soy to the poaching liquid, you might want to skip salting the chicken before you cook it). Chicken prepared this way is delicious in dumplings and spring rolls. Again, use your imagination!

Shred or cube the chicken and use in a yummy recipe of your choice. Alternatively, spread the warm breasts with a bit of goat cheese, sprinkle on a few chives, and serve as an elegant light supper along with a leafy green salad and some mashed potatoes. Simple comfort food.

Not all poaching involves meat. Poached pears and other sorts of fruit make delicious desserts!

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