Summertime, and the living is anything but easy – Poisson en papillote

Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese; garlic makes it good. – Alice May Brock

Summertime is here in full swing. Astounding high heat, muggy high humidity, mosquitos known for carrying off small children – all of these characterize the mid-year months in the swamplands of Houston. (It’s a great city. Really.) On top of this, because of some changes at work, I’ve rejoined the commuter world. For the last two years, I’ve had the pleasure of being almost exclusively a home-worker, with a fifteen step travel to the office. (Twenty if I stop for coffee first.) Now, I’m up early to take the bus into downtown, which takes me a little over an hour each way. It’s worse if I drive, unless I can commute at some bizarre mid-day hour to avoid traffic. I’m getting up earlier, getting home later, getting less done in the middle, and yet somehow come out ahead.

This is also the busiest time of year for Christine as a wedding photographer. She’s had back-to-back-to-back weddings every weekend all summer, with engagement shoots during the week. Plus, she’s taken over management of Wholly Matrimony! and is putting a lot of effort into building that site further. She’s a total rockstar, but she’s working as much if not more than I am at the moment.

As one can imagine, this puts a bit of a crimp in my cooking style. We are just-in-time shoppers, often dashing to the store to grab ingredients in time to get dinner cooked and on the table. This is okay if I can sneak away from home in the middle of the afternoon, but not so cool when I’m not getting home until much later. I’ve come close to refocusing this site on restaurant reviews (topics such as a comparative analysis of McDonald’s franchise decisions between stand-alone locations, inside Wal-Mart, and in the Chevron station, or how to convince a picky teenager that he’ll really like the Asian restaurant) instead of cooking. Hey – they can’t all be four star meals…. Instead, however, I’m finding ways to make time to cook. Either we eat later, or I prep food for a few days, or we eat even simpler. I’m not fully back in my routine yet, but getting there.

Thus, it’s a treat to find something easy to prepare, light on the diet, not too bad for the wallet either, and that Jason will eat eagerly. I really didn’t expect him to jump at poisson en papillote (Fish! In a paper bag!) but he’s become a devoted fan.

(Before we get to that – the astute reader with the long memory will recall a different site design previously. Recognizing that I tend now to write much fewer posts but much more in-depth, this site has moved to more of a magazine-style format. It feels like a better fit, and while I’m sure to be tweaking things often, I think this will remain for some time. Feel free to comment and give feedback on the change. Now, back to the fish.)

As always, we turn to Ruhlman’s The Elements Of Cooking for a basic understanding:

En papillote means in paper, usually oiled parchment paper. Food cooked en papillote, often fish or other delicate meat, is steamed, so the flavors of high heat aren’t associated with it; thus other flavors should be introduced within the package, such as aromatic vegetables; additional herbs, spices, or even marinades can be used and sometimes the item can be seared before being sealed in the paper pouch. The benefits are that it’s a fat-free method of cooking (though some compound butter can be added for flavor), all the flavors remain in the packet until the packet is cut open, and serving an item en papillote creates a dramatic preparation. The tricky part is knowng when the item is done, so it’s best to follow a tested recipe to get a sense of timing for the specific kind of item you’re cooking…. (Ruhlman p. 184)

The hit has been a filet of orange roughy, about a half pound each, which is a delicate and very mild white fish. There’s a good seafood counter at a local grocery store here, with excellent quality fish, and the roughy is one of the most affordable of the mild white fishes. Not knowing how the rest of the family would take to stronger fish, but not wanting to have the house smells like dead fish for days, I decided to stick with the mild at first. This fish is cooked simply with butter, lemon, and a bit of white wine, which yields an unbelievably good sauce in the packet. A later addition to the preparation has been thinly sliced leeks as a bed under the fish in the packet.

There are echoes to one of the first recipes I came across but never tried – The Surreal Gourmet’s Dishwasher Salmon. It’s exactly the same approach – salmon filets packed with herbs in foil pouches, but cooked in the top rack of a dishwasher instead of an oven. Or on the car engine while driving around the neighborhood. While I haven’t been that brave – yet – it’s a technique seen over and over in many unrelated places.

True to the recipe, I cut big heart-shaped pieces of parchment paper, prepared the bundles, and crimped the edges of the paper around the fish. This does make for a great presentation, and having a heart shape really does help, although I suspect the next time I do this I’ll crimp the edges and use a stapler – it’ll cut about half of the preparation time out of the recipe. Think a bit about the presentation when assembling the packet, and layer appropriately.

This is a bit fiddly to get out of the paper packet properly for serving – the roughy is so tender as to fall apart if even looked at it the wrong way. Instead, I try to serve as-is in the packets, as shown in the picture. (Note to self – really try to find some more contrasting plates, as white packets on white plates on a white counter just isn’t quite cutting it. Nor is your camera phone.) If you can get it out, go for it, but DO NOT FORGET to pour out every drop of the sauce from the packets – it’s divine!

Orange Roughy en papillote

Orange Roughy en papillote (Fish! In a paper bag!)

Serves 2.

  • 2 filets of orange roughy, each approx. 8 oz.
  • 6 slices of lemon
  • 3 Tbsp. butter, divided
  • 2 leeks, white and light green, cleaned and very thinly sliced
  • 3-4 Tbsp. white wine (chardonnay is excellent)
  • salt, pepper
  • chopped parsley

Preheat oven to 425 degF. Cut large hearts of parchment paper so that each fish filet fits on one half of the heart with some margin around it for crimping.

Place the leeks, wine, fish, salt, pepper, lemon slices, butter, and parsley on the parchment paper. Fold over and crimp, working your way around the edges and crimping a little more each time. Make sure the seal is tight, as this is important to holding in the steam and getting everything to cook well. Prepare the second packet in the same manner.

Place on a cookie sheet and bake in the oven for about 10 minutes until the paper is very puffed and lightly browned. Remove from the oven and serve – suggestion is to place each packet on its plate and cut open the paper in front of each diner. Enjoy a criminally easy, sophisticated meal!