As I indicated in my last post, something naturally happens as the weather warms whereby I turn away from my many cookbooks (or in the case of this year, pack them into about 10 cardboard boxes and put them in a POD) and instead begin to develop a more spontaneous and improvisational cooking style. Last night my sister’s plans for whole trout on the grill were thwarted by an ill-stocked fish counter, and I instead purchased two gargantuan halibut steaks (the ones cut cross-wise from the fish’s body) with a glimmer of an idea in mind.
When I got home, I raided my mother’s cabinet and refrigerator, pulling out some prepared pesto, a half a tomato, jars of roasted red peppers and marinated artichokes, a lemon and some fresh thyme. I then cut two large rectangles of parchment paper (you can also use aluminum foil), about 14-16 inches long for my huge steaks, and folded the sheets in half, then opened them up on the counter again. I put one of the halibut steaks in the middle of one half of each of the parchment paper sheets. Then, I improvised.
On one steak I rubbed pesto thickly across both cut sides, layered a couple of tomato slices on top, added some roasted red peppers (about three half-peppers), and a couple artichoke hearts, and then drizzled some oil from the artichoke marinade and the juice of half a lemon over the whole thing. On the other steak, I put leftover caramelized onions and fennel from my tartlettes, more artichokes, sliced kalamata olives and two tomato slices and doused again with the marinade and lemon. I placed a big sprig of thyme on the top of each steak, and began the process of sealing up the parchment.
Fold the empty half of parchment over the loaded fish half so that the two cut edges of the parchment touch, and kind of hold those two pieces together (you can use a jar or something to weight them if you need to). Begin at one of the edges of the center fold and begin working your way around the open edges of the parchment package, folding in tiny overlapping triangles. Parchment holds fairly well, so just make your triangles tight and use the back of your thumbnail to sharpen the folds. Aluminum foil is even easier and pretty self explanatory.
The Gourmet Cookbook suggests folding the last triangle under the package, to seal it “completely”. I didn’t do that (my last fold was up, like the others) and I had one package open up in the oven, and one stay sealed. Either way, it isn’ t a big deal if a bit of liquid leaks out in the cooking process.
Next step: put a large baking sheet into a pre-heated 500 degree (F) oven for 5 minutes. Pull it out, and put the fish packages on the hot baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes or so (depending on the thickness of the fish you’re using – mine was about an inch of thick halibut and was perfect after 11 minutes) at 500 degrees, then pull out of the oven. Opening up the package after this is a real treat – the steam whooshes out in an aromatic burst, and one is astonished to find all the vegetables and fish cooked perfectly and in pristine shape and full color.
This technique, cooking ‘en papillote’, is wonderful for several reasons. 1) It is very forgiving, as the steam from the vegetables and fish keeps everything pretty moist, even if you leave it a couple extra minutes in the oven. 2) It is quite healthy, seeing that you don’t need any butter or oil (though it is highly recommended to add butter or olive oil at the end as a finishing element) and you can pack the papillote full of veggies. 3) It is an impressive presentation if you put each portion in its own papillotte and serve your guests the package to open themselves at the table. 4) Finally, the technique is wildly versatile – perfect for summer improvisation! The fish can be cod, snapper, bass, trout, or any number of varieties, and the toppings and aromatics inside could include any combination of herbs, oils, wine, fresh vegetables, cherry tomatoes, olives, citrus zest & juice, capers, spices, vinegar or greens that you like. Try different pairings to find your favorite melange, or invite your guests to each assemble their own before dinner!