Papillote Made Simple By Cathy Thomas

Dramatic? Absolutely. Delicious? You bet.

Cooking en papillote creates dishes that dazzle. They are easy to prepare, perfect for post-pandemic dinners at home with friends.

It’s the classic French technique that bakes ingredients sealed in a parchment-paper pouch. Each parcel contains one serving, and as it bakes the food inside steams in its own juices. Once pierced at the table, misty tendrils of tempting scents are released, filling nostrils with hunger-producing joy.

This method is one of my favorite ways to cook fish for company. The packets can be assembled using cool components a couple of hours in advance and stored in the fridge.

Any super-fresh, skinless, delicate or medium-firm fish fillets work. Use sea bass, ling cod, sole, mahi mahi, or halibut. Thicker fillets will need a couple more minutes in the oven. Thin sea bass requires about 12 to 13 minutes, thicker halibut about 15 to 16 minutes; if made in advance and chilled, add about 3 minutes to the oven time. In the kitchen, test one for doneness. If not cooked to perfection, slip them back in the oven for a few minutes.

Toward the end of baking, each packet balloons into an alluring golden dome. Slipped onto individual plates, each diner tears or cuts open the package at the table. I usually make a tiny hole with the point of a paring knife just to get things started.

The ingredients within the packet can be as simple as a fish fillet topped with chopped fresh herbs, salt, pepper, butter, and a tiny splash of dry white wine, dry vermouth, or balsamic vinegar. Add a thin slice of lemon or a pinch of citrus zest if you like. Or you can try some thinly sliced yellow crookneck and a teaspoon of finely diced shallot.

My longtime favorite rendition pairs the fish with a creamy sauce that showcases fresh tomatoes, mushrooms, and shallots. A simple roux of butter and flour is augmented with white wine and cream. Plentiful fresh herbs add to the mix, making the sauce a perfect partner with fish.

The sauce is made at least 30 minutes before assembly; this allows it to firm up so that it stays in place as the parchment is tucked and rolled to enclose the parcel. Have a look at the video to see how easy it is to crimp and press the parchment. Bon Appetit.

Fish Fillets en Papillote

Yield: 6 servings
3 tablespoons butter
2 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced
4 large mushrooms, sliced
2 large shallots, peeled, minced
2 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley (or tarragon or basil)
6 (5-ounce) fish fillets, boned and skinless delicate or medium-firm fish fillet, such as sea bass, striped bass, halibut, mahimahi, ling cod, or snapper
1 teaspoon salt (a sprinkle of Spike original seasoning is a nice addition, too)
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
6 sheets parchment paper – 12-by-14 inches or 12-by-16-inches, see cook’s notes
1 egg white and pastry brush

Cook’s notes: For those looking for speedier preparation, quick-to-make packets can be made of aluminum foil.

  1. Adjust oven rack to middle position. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in large deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add tomatoes, mushrooms, and shallots; cook, stirring frequently, until most of liquid has cooked away and mushrooms are cooked. Add flour; stir frequently and cook on medium for 2 minutes. Add wine, increase heat to medium high and continue cooking, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes, or until most of wine has cooked away. Add cream and cook until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in parsley or basil or tarragon. Taste and add salt if needed.
    If making as much as three hours in advance, cool the sauce completely before assembly. If assembling to bake right away, wait about 30 minutes before assembling so sauce can cool down.
  3. Pat fish dry; season fish with salt and pepper to taste. Fold each sheet of parchment in half. Open and brush a small amount of egg white on border on the lower half. Place about 1 to 2 tablespoons sauce next to the fold and top with fillet. Top with 3 tablespoons sauce.
  4. Fold paper in half. Starting at the top corner, make small “tuck and rolls” with parchment edge. Twist final edge and tuck under packet and place in single layer on baking sheet.
  5. Bake in preheated oven for about 12 to 13 minutes for thin fillets, or 15 to 16 minutes for thicker fillets. Test one for doneness. If it needs more time, return to oven for 2 to 4 minutes. Serve immediately in parchment. To capture sauce, provide diners with good-sized spoons.

Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”

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