Imagine being presented with a elegant package for supper.
You think how odd until you slit open and peel back the paper to reveal the food. Suddenly your senses are besieged by the wonderful aromas that whoosh out.
Now you are thinking, “Wow! What a good idea.”
Well, the French must have thought so too, because years ago they created a technique to do just that when they cooked foods “en papillote.”
En papillote (pah-pee-yoht) is a method of cooking, most specifically a variation of steaming, whereby food is encased in parchment paper and placed in an oven.
Herbs, vegetables, and some kind of fluid, such as a sauce, wine, stock, etc., are included. Thus, the natural juices of the food in conjunction with the added fluids, produce steam which cooks the food within its encapsulated parchment pouch.
The intermingling of the steam and the various ingredients produces a wonderful blend of flavours.
This cooking method is incredibly easy and has the added benefits of being low in fat because it essentially cooks by steaming in its own juices.
Typically, it is most often used to cook fish: With just a little butter or oil for moisture and a few herbs for essence and flavour, it’s a foolproof path to a juicy fillet. But it can also be applied to summer time specials like sweet scallops, corn on the cob, or even in season fruits that need a little something extra to qualify as dessert.
One of the beauties of serving food en papillote is that it’s simply designed to be done in individual portions.
Each is like a “gift” on every plate, with its own little show in the unfolding. This is also a great way to deal with picky eaters.
Everyone receive their own special package with what they like or don’t like .
Steaming en papillote requires no special equipment, other than a roll of parchment paper or foil. Both do the job as long as they’re sealed tightly to prevent steam from escaping. But choose parchment when steaming foods with a salt rub or highly acidic accent, such as vinegar, to avoid discolouration or off odours caused by a chemical reaction with the aluminum.
Having said this, personally I think presenting food in parchment paper brings more elegance to the table.
Parchment paper is relatively delicate but strong enough to enfold anything from ripe blueberries to slabs of halibut with no leaks.
Once it’s coated with a little butter or olive oil, the paper becomes impregnable for cooking but still functional to exchanges of flavour in the heat of the oven.
As the paper puffs, which foil will not do, it creates an intensely concentrated environment for the ingredients to mingle. Tastes like tomato, basil, olive and garlic come together with food more gently but assertively than they would in a sauté pan.
You could haphazardly fold the paper around your food, but there is a suave way of creating your packet. “Papillote” is derived from the word for butterfly, which is a hint as to how you proceed with the shape. You fold a long sheet in half crosswise and scissor out butterfly wings — a piece that looks like half a heart or, when you unfold it, a valentine.
Fold the parchment in half and crimp the edges. I find that simply crimping and tucking as I work my way around works fine. Sometimes it takes an extra fold or two to get the package to hold together. Carefully slide the packet onto a baking sheet. If you’re making this ahead of time, put it in the refrigerator until time to cook.
When creating your individual packages, anything goes. You can include any meat, vegetables and fruits into parchment: chicken breasts, salmon steaks, shrimp; mushrooms, zucchini, peas; peaches or apricots or even rhubarb to name a few.
Be creative and chose flavours you enjoy but make sure to size vegetables accordingly.
If you like carrots use baby carrots or julienne regular carrots so they cook quicker along with tougher vegetables. Par boil potatoes and slice into 1/4 inch pieces. Seasoning is also a key because the flavours are relatively delicate; salt and pepper are not to be forgotten.
Carefully place the packets on plates and serve. Your guests will tear open the packet to release a wonderfully aromatic steam and find everything inside is cooked just right with flavours that are distinct.
Salmon en papillote
1 ea 5 – 6 oz salmon fillet section
4-5 parboiled baby potatoes, cut in half
Chopped fresh fennel
1/4 teaspoon basil
Thinly sliced carrots
1 1/2 tbsp butter
1 Tablespoon olive oil
10 – 12 snow peas
1/2 ea lemon
Heat oven to 425 F. Prepare parchment.
Cook potato slices in boiling water, seasoned with salt, until tender. Add potatoes, fennel, snow peas, carrots and basil together in a bowl. Mix in olive oil, salt, and zest of 1/2 lemon.
Place the vegetable mixture on parchment paper. Top with Salmon. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Dot fish with butter. Place thin lemon slices on top of fish. Seal parchment envelope
Place bundle on a baking sheet and cook for 12-15 minutes (varies with the size of your fillet). Serves 1.
Summer fruit en papillote
4 tablespoons melted butter plus extra for the parchment
4 medium peaches or 6 apricots, ripe but firm and sliced
1 cup blueberries
4 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger
Ice cream or whipped cream (optional)
Heat the oven to 450F. Cut 4 sheets of baking parchment into 15- by 12-inch pieces. Fold each in half and cut into the shape of half a heart. Unfold to reveal a whole heart and brush butter onto one side of each sheet along the fold in the middle where the fruit will be placed.
Set aside. Combine the remaining butter, the peaches or apricots, blueberries, sugar, cloves, allspice, cinnamon and ginger in bowl and toss to mix well.
Divide the fruit mixture among the four parchment hearts, placing fruit along the fold on one side of the heart. Fold the sheets over and crimp the edges tightly to seal completely. Lay the packets on a baking sheet. Bake until the parchment packets puff up and the fruit gives off juices, about 10 minutes. Transfer each packet to a plate and slit open with a sharp knife. Top with ice cream or whipped cream if desired.
Madhu Badoni is a Red Deer-based freelance food writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org