When I first learned to fold a parchment paper circle into a half-moon turnover in which I could cook just about anything en papillote, I cooked just about everything en papillote and thought that if I kept it up, I'd not only be among the healthiest-eating citizens in the land, I'd also earn the right to call myself an origami master.
Then, just as quickly as I became infatuated with this way of cooking, that's how fast I put it on the back burner and moved on to the next thing. I don't know why I was so fickle and I certainly don't know why I gave up on something so terrific. But my papilloteless days are behind me. The little packets have made a comeback chez moi and now it's all anyone can do to stop me from whipping up a pouch and tucking something in it.
Almost anything - meat, fish, fowl, fruits and vegetables - can be neatly arranged in a tightly sealed cocoon of parchment or foil (so much easier) and gently cooked - kind of by roasting, more kind of by steaming - with little or no fat and almost no effort.
The principle here is to combine the "main ingredients" or a mix of mains (for instance, a chicken cutlet and some vegetables) with some herbs, spices or aromatics, so that as the ingredients cook, they are infused with flavor and fragrance.
The method works like a charm for individual servings - there's little better than being presented with a papillote and having the pleasure of opening it at the table, so you get that first perfumed puff of steam - but you can cook a whole fish in a packet or even all the fixings for a shellfish stew. (And, of course, any recipe for one serving, like the one below, can be multiplied endlessly.)
These days, I often make it really easy on myself by crafting the cocoons from non-stick aluminum foil. They don't look as elegant as parchment, but they seal super-tight with just a a quick pinch. And there's a lot to be said for quick on a school night.
Here's a recipe for salmon and tomatoes en papillote. You could do this same recipe with cod, monkfish or bass, or you could opt for a chicken cutlet. And you could swap the tomatoes for zucchini or flat beans or cobless corn or any combination that appeals to you. Naturally, the choice of herbs is up for grabs, too. The only thing to keep in mind is that all of the ingredients should cook in the same amount of time.
Before tucking them into the packet, I rolled the grape tomatoes around in a skillet with a little hot olive oil to concentrate their flavor, but it's completely unnecessary. It was a day when I had plenty of playing-around time, which is also why I put the fish on a small parchment circle and then wrapped it in a foil pouch - again, a completely unnecessary step, but I thought it looked prettier and I had time for pretty.
SALMON AND TOMATOES EN PAPILLOTE
Makes 1 serving
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil (more to taste)
4 grape tomatoes
About 6 basil leaves
One 5-ounce filet of salmon (skinless or not)
1/2 spring onion or 1 scallion (optional), finely sliced
1 sprig thyme
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Center a rack in the oven, preheat the oven to 475 degrees F and have a baking sheet at hand. Cut a piece of foil that is large enough for you to lay out the ingredients, lift up the edges of the foil and seal the packet with an inch or two of air space above the fish.
If you want to "sear" the tomatoes, warm 1 teaspoon of the olive oil in a small skillet, then saute the tomatoes just until their skins are wrinkled and bubbly, about 3 minutes.
Working in the center of the piece of foil, make a bed of basil leaves, keeping 1 leaf aside. Sprinkle the leaves with a little salt and pepper, put the salmon over the leaves and season it with salt and pepper too. (If the salmon has skin, lay it skin-side against the basil.) Put the tomatoes on one side of the salmon and grate the lemon's zest over everything. If you're using the spring onion or scallion, scatter the pieces over the fish and tomatoes. Give the salmon a squirt of lemon juice, then cut two thin slices from the lemon and put them on top of the fish. Top with the last basil leaf and the sprig of thyme; moisten with olive oil.
Seal the packet, making sure it's airtight and that there's puff space between the fish and the top of its cocoon. Put the packet on the baking sheet, slide the set-up into the oven and bake for 10 minutes, if you like your fish pink and slightly jiggly in the center (great for salmon); bake 2 minutes longer if you want your fish better done.
You can either put the packet on a dinner plate and open it at the table, or open the packet in the kitchen and arrange the ingredients on a plate. If you plate the fish, you might want to finish the dish with a little minced basil or some snipped chives.