Thursday, January 19, 2012


"Les femmes aiment un homme qui peut cuisiner"

Somehow, French became the language of food. Its not so much the language of love; if anything that seems to be more latin than any language, but almost all cooking terms are French in origin. The word cuisine is French. Most techniques and descriptions of food are French.

Cooking en papillote is one of those French terms that sounds terribly fancy but isn't. All it means is cooking something "in a pouch." And its not only one of the easiest ways to cook a meal, but one of the tastiest. The first time I saw this technique was on The Naked Chef where Jamie Oliver showed a bunch of boys at an English public school how to cook a meal for the girls. He taught the girls how to make a dessert.

Basically all you need is some aluminum foil (or parchment, but you probably won't have that, and its more specific how to use and what you can cook with it) and some food. In the end you have this impressive looking pillow that when cut open bursts with steam and aroma like a delicious present. Why more restaurants do not use this I don't know because it has wonderful presentation and is fun to eat.

Here's a really basic recipe I recently worked up with en papillote:
  • 1 fish fillet (I used Swai, but any fish will do)
  • 1/3 package of frozen mixed vegetables
  • 1 teaspoon Salt
  • 1 tablespoon margarine or butter
  • 2 tablespoons Italian dressing
  • 1 small potato
First, cut the potato into little cubes, about half an inch across. Blanch the potato - this just means dump it in water, bring it up to a boil, and drain and rinse the potato in cold water. This step is optional but it ensures the tater is cooked properly with everything else.

Start your oven preheating to 325.

Pull off a sheet of aluminum foil about 18" long. Lay the foil down shiny side up*, and lay the fillet on one half of the sheet. Pile the vegetables and potato on the fillet, keeping the contents at least an inch from the sides. Lay the butter on top, and drizzle the dressing over it. Salt the whole pile.

Now you assemble. Fold the empty half of the foil over the food, matching the edges as closely as possible. Carefully fold about a quarter inch of an edge over forming a seal on one side, then go to the next, then the third side, so that the entire package is sealed. Now fold each edge over again, so you have rolled over each of the three sides twice. This will form a sealed pouch of foil with food inside.

Place that foil into your oven and cook for half an hour at 325. If you've done it right, the food will cook perfectly, and nothing will spill out.

Put the package on a plate and let the people eating open it up. The food inside is very hot, because it has steamed and while cooking the pouch will bloat up into a pillow full of steam. When opened, this will let off a cloud of steam and all the smells of the food within, which will be quite wonderful. And its fun for everyone to open up their little present.

Now, you can do this with most kinds of meat, but chicken and fish work best because they steam well. If you cut beef up into small portions it can work, but steamed beef is not very appetizing. You usually want vegetables in there and some kind of starch, because what you're looking for is a full meal in one package, but that's not always necessary. Just be aware that rice takes longer to cook this way and requires a lot of liquid.

In order to get the steam to begin with, you have to have enough water in the pouch to get steam, otherwise you just burn stuff in a little smoke bomb and its awful. So always add some liquid, especially if there aren't many vegetables. Citrus works well for this, such as lemon or lime juice, but any fruit that will stand up to steaming works fine.

If you want to do this very technically, then use parchment paper. There is cooking parchment at nearly any grocery store in America now, and its pretty nifty stuff. It resists absorbing water like wax paper, but is much more durable. You can cook with parchment in an oven up to 450 degrees, and unless you're cooking pizza, you won't need it much hotter anyway.

Traditionally, you cut the parchment into a heart shape, folded in half, and then when its full you fold over the edges, which will tend to stay folded. Start at the rounded part of the heart at the top and fold around to the bottom, leaving a sort of "pigtail" which you then use as a spout to pour some liquid into, then fold over. If you want, you can staple the parchment, but that's less attractive looking.

Essentially this works the same either way, but foil is cheaper and just about every kitchen will have some, so its fine. Cooking this way is about as easy as cooking gets, and allows you a huge amount of flexibility and creativity. You can chop up the meat, you can put just about any vegetable in, you can make it simple and stylish like a fillet of Tuna with slices of lemon on top and some lemon grass or dill weed over it, whatever you want. What you put in the pouch will stay almost exactly like that while cooking, so you can make something fancy looking within the pouch to be discovered.

Try this out, it will impress people without taking much skill or effort on your part. And it makes a super-easy lunch for yourself. If you have the supplies, its about 10 minutes, tops, to prep and then you walk away and let it cook. Just be aware, the food is really hot when you first open it.

*you'll note that your foil has two sides, one slightly shinier than the other. That's on purpose - the shinier side reflects heat better than the non-shiny side, so you can use that to your advantage. You can use it to either keep heat in better or reflect heat off better, depending on your need.

This is part of the Real Men Cook series.

No comments: