The next time you’re cooking fresh-caught fish for your dinner guests, consider serving a very special and impressive meal using the classic French cooking technique called “en papillote,” in which pieces of fish are sealed, then baked, in packets of parchment paper.
The fish is gently steamed inside the pouch, which seals in moisture and prevents juices from evaporating. When done, the packets are served on plates, and when each person cuts into one, it’s like opening a present for dinner. The wonderful aromas of the delicious food inside are sure to inspire lots of ohs and ahs.
Cooking en papillote is much easier than most people think and produces a dish deliciously low in fat. The parchment pouches can be assembled hours before dinner, refrigerated and popped into the oven just before meal time. These self-contained meals also cut down on messy pots and pans.
Aluminum foil can be substituted, but parchment paper is the traditional material used. This heavy paper is specially treated to have a smooth, impermeable surface that resists moisture and grease. As long as it does not directly touch a flame, the paper won’t burn in the oven. It’s available in supermarkets alongside foil and waxed paper.
“En papillote” is derived from the French term for “in paper” or “in parchment.” Pieces of parchment paper large enough to generously enclose each serving of fish are cut from the roll. Each piece is then folded in half, and the edges are cut to form half a heart shape. It will look like a full heart or, some say, the wings of a butterfly when unfolded.
Food is placed on one side of the heart, and the opposite side is folded over it. The edge is then crimped tightly to seal the parchment.
There are two keys to successful en papillote cooking. The first is to seal the edges of the packets completely so steam cannot escape. This can be done by firmly crimping together the sides or brushing egg white on the edges to assist in sealing.
The second key is to leave room inside the packet to allow air to circulate and the packet to expand. Some cooks insert a straw into the last corner of the packet to be crimped and inflate the packet before removing the straw and sealing the corner.
Preparation is largely the same for any type of fish. Brush butter or oil on the inside of the packet where the food will rest; then add the fish, along with other ingredients such as herbs and thinly sliced vegetables. If desired, a little liquid or butter is added atop the food.
After sealing, the packets are placed on a baking sheet, oil is brushed on top of each, and the pan is put into a preheated oven. Fish is cooked at 425 degrees, about 10 minutes for a fillet or a steak that is 1 inch thick or less. The bag should be very puffy and brown when the dish is done. Packets can also be cooked in a microwave.
If you like, you can unseal one corner (do not allow the steam to burn you) and insert an instant thermometer to be sure the food is properly cooked. Fish is done at 145 to 150 degrees.
Remove the packets onto a plate, and when ready to eat, cut an X shape in the top, and peel back the corners. You and your guests will love how fish tastes after cooking it this way.
Striped Bass En Papillote
4 (6-ounce) striped-bass fillets
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
12 (1/4-inch-thick) tomato slices
1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits
Zest from 1/2 orange, removed in long wide strips with a vegetable peeler and cut crosswise into very thin strips
4 fresh herb sprigs, such as sage, thyme or parsley
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Cut 4 12-by-15-inch sheets of parchment paper. Fold each sheet crosswise in half to crease, then unfold. Trim the edges to create a heart shape if desired, and brush one side with olive oil or butter.
Season each piece of fish with salt and pepper, and put one fillet on the oiled side of each sheet. Top each fillet with three tomato slices, 1/8 teaspoon red-pepper flakes, one fourth each of butter and zest, and 1 herb sprig.
Working with one package at a time, fold the left half of the parchment over the fillet. Starting at one corner of the crease, fold the edge of the parchment over in triangles (each fold should overlap the previous one), following a semicircular path around the fillet, smoothing out the folds as you go and tucking the last fold under to seal the packet.
Heat a baking sheet in the oven for 5 minutes. Put the packets on the hot baking sheet, and bake for 10 minutes. Test for doneness; then transfer the packets to plates and serve.
Microwave Catfish En Papillote
3 tablespoons dry sherry
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons chopped green onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
4 (6-ounce) catfish fillets
1 red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
2 ounces ham, cut into thin strips
8 lemon slices
Combine the first six ingredients in a bowl. Cut four 12-by-15-inch sheets of parchment paper. Fold each sheet crosswise in half to crease, then unfold. Trim the edges to create a heart shape if desired, and brush one side with olive oil or butter.
Place one fillet on the oiled side of each sheet. Top each fillet with one-fourth of the red pepper strips and ham, and top with two lemon slices. Spoon one-fourth of the sauce over each, then crimp and seal the edges of each packet.
Arrange two packets on a microwave-safe plate. Microwave on high for 6 minutes. Let stand 1 minute. Repeat with the remaining two packets. Arrange packets on serving plates; open carefully at the table. Serve immediately.
Fish En Papillote for Two
1 medium yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped green onion
1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 (6-ounce) fish fillets (your choice)
Toss the first seven ingredients together in a bowl. Cut 4 12-by-15-inch sheets of parchment paper. Fold each sheet crosswise in half to crease, then unfold. Trim the edges to create a heart shape if desired, and brush one side with olive oil or butter.
Place one fillet on the oiled side of each sheet. Season with salt and pepper. Top with half of the pepper-onion mixture. Crimp and seal the edges of each packet.
Place the pouches on a baking pan heated in a 425-degree oven for 5 minutes. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until the fish is done. Serve the packets sealed and hot.