Bundle of joy

Cook fish, chicken or fruit in parchment packets for a springtime surprise


The delicate art of cooking fish and poultry in parchment was once the province of fine restaurants, where the gently singed packet was laid before the diner like a rustic gift.

Now this elegant way to prepare food is as available to the home cook as the roll of parchment paper on the grocery-store shelf.

"It never goes out of style," said Richard Stuthmann, director of instruction at Baltimore International College culinary school. "But it was out of reach for the home cook for a long time," he said, because parchment was a product available primarily to professional cooks.

"Now you can find it in the Saran Wrap aisle at the grocery store," he said, where it comes on rolls or in pre-cut sheets the perfect size for constructing a pouch.

Julia Child, in her new posthumous memoir, ridiculed the technique as "a lot of tomfoolery." It is "the kind of gimmicky dish a little newlywed would serve up for her first dinner party," she said in My Life in France, which is to be published next month.

But whatever that great lady thought of it, the technique is a deceptively simple way to prepare a supper worthy of the term's etymology. The French term for this kind of cooking - "en papillote" - is a charming reference to the heart-shaped cut of parchment paper. It looks something like a butterfly, and en papillote (pronounced ahn pah-pee-YACHT) is derived from the French word for butterfly, papillon.

"The best thing about this is the presentation," said Renee Schettler, food editor of Real Simple magazine, which featured the method in its February issue. "You bring this package to the table, puffed and slightly brown, and your guests don't know what is inside. There is an element of surprise."

The appeal goes beyond the Christmas-morning nature of this eating experience.

It is a healthful and extremely versatile way to prepare food, and one that might predate the French.

The Chinese have used bamboo steamers for centuries, and other cultures have created packets for food from the large leaves of native plants, then cooked them over hot springs or hot stones.

"It is ancient," said Stuthmann. And it "preserves the integrity of the flavors," he said. A very hot oven (400 to 500 degrees) coaxes the moisture out of the ingredients and the food steams - the perfect way to prepare fish and chicken, which often dry out during cooking.

Dinner is ready when the packets puff up, in as little as 10 minutes. And the pristine flavors waft out of the parchment as soon as it is pierced.

"As you pull away the crinkly, slightly burnished edges of the parcels, you'll feel almost as if you're unwrapping a gift," Schettler wrote in Real Simple.

Stacey Zier, a cooking teacher and food writer in Annapolis, loves the technique for its versatility.

"You can jump continents with the same piece of fish," she said. "Indian, Moroccan, Italian, Asian, Southwestern." She begins to rattle off possibilities as if she is choosing from columns A, B, C and D.

"Chicken, haddock, salmon, sole. Leeks, celery, carrots, mushrooms. Garlic, spring onions. Meyer lemons, kalamata olives, a nice Mediterranean oregano," said Zier.

"Snap peas and asparagus are perfect this time of year. Or those little yellow pear tomatoes. Add a pesto, a salsa, a chutney, tapenade."

Or simply drizzle a flavored oil or vinegar or a splash of wine over the contents of the packet.

It is also a graceful way to prepare a fruit dessert, she said. Apples, pears or cherries, plus an element of crunch, such as walnuts, pistachios or granola, steam themselves into the perfect companion to ice cream.

There are limits to cooking en papillote. Red meats do not like to be steamed - their flavor comes from the crust that forms during searing - and hard vegetables, such as carrots, potatoes or artichokes, may require precooking.

Packets can be prepared in the morning and popped in the oven just before it is time to serve dinner, freeing up the hostess or the busy cook.

Obviously, the cleanup is nil when you can toss the cooking utensil into the trash. (Though it is best to choose a high-quality parchment, which can stand up to the heat and the liquid.)

If there is a trick to this process, it is in the sort of origami folding technique required to close the packet.

Whether you are working with the traditional heart shape or a square packet, the key is to make lots of tiny little folds and very sharp creases. This is what prevents the steam and the flavors from escaping.

This technique recalls, too, the "hobo packs" of our scouting youth, when we wrapped a mixture of ground meat, potatoes, carrots and ketchup in foil and tossed it on a smoldering camp fire.

Foil, of course, does not require the delicate crimping, but it has downsides: The puffing of the parchment is a signal that supper is done, and that won't happen with foil. And foil precludes the use of ingredients - such as tomatoes, lemon and wine - that will react with it and create a bitter aftertaste.

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