Fish en Papillote

Finished PapillotteAs 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!

Simple Roast Salmon

Unfortunately I had little success with my third recipe from Nina Simonds’ cookbook Spices of Life.  I wanted all three recipes to showcase the strengths of the cookbook – Kung Pao Chicken gives an easy method for making a favorite Chinese takeout dish at home and Doctored-up Ramen demonstrates a healthy, inexpensive and fun version of a nostalgic noodle – but I also intend for my Cookbook Challenge to be representative.  In the week I dedicated to the cookbook, I had two great successes (already mentioned) and a bunch of not-so-good results.  First, the cardamom asparagus which were not spectacular:

Cardamom AsparagusThen a strawberry-rhubarb crumble that had the weakest, least flavorful topping I’ve ever tasted (what a waste!):


and finally, a Pad Thai that truly disappointed.  Though I really LOVE pad thai, this make-at-home version was horrific.  I would ascribe the off flavor to the ketchup (!) in the recipe — no amount of fresh lime juice or peanuts could save it.  But the pictures came out well:


The above recipes really aren’t worth repeating here, so I won’t!  The below recipe is pretty simple, and while I wasn’t totally blown away by it, I think part of the problem might have been human error.  I overcooked the salmon slightly (by following the times in the directions, I might add) and I am unsure how (given the balsamic and soy sauce in the marinade) anyone could achieve the light pink result pictured in the book:

Simonds Salmon

As for the snap peas, I thought they tasted very light and refreshing — perfect for a hot summer lunch, picnic or potluck.  I am not convinced that the cold minty snap peas are a good pairing with the salty warm salmon.  In fact, I really didn’t like the two of them together.  I feel like I gave the cookbook ample opportunity to give me a winner third recipe, but instead I give you two recipes that were decent on their own, and very simple to make, but which do not have my wholehearted endorsement.

Pan-Roasted Salmon Served with Minty Snap Peas, from Nina Simonds’ Spices of Life

(Serves 6)

“The ginger–soy–balsamic marinade gives the seared salmon a lovely flavor and color and the simple mint dressing is a light and refreshing complement to snap peas. Nina likes to serve this dish hot, or at room temperature with rice pilaf for a festive buffet.” [she says to serve this dish hot, meaning (I suppose) the salmon, since the snap peas are ‘refreshed in cold water’ before being added to the mint dressing]

salmon-marinade6 pieces salmon fillets with skin on, each weighing about 6 ounces

For salmon marinade
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
3 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1½ pounds snap peas

For mint dressing
3 tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice, or to taste
4 to 5 tablespoons chopped mint
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons virgin olive oil

Make the marinade: Mix the ginger, soy sauce, and balsamic vinegar in a small bowl. Put the salmon in a deep dish. Pour in the marinade and toss lightly to coat. Let the salmon sit at room temperature while cooking the snap peas.

Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil in a saucepan and add the snap peas. Cook for 2 minutes, or until they are crisp tender. Drain in a colander and refresh in cold water. Drain again and blot dry on paper towels.

Whisk the mint dressing ingredients together in a mixing bowl. Add the snap peas and toss lightly to coat. Taste for seasoning, adjusting if necessary.

Heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan over high heat until very hot. Place the salmon steaks with their coating, skin side down, in the pan, partially cover, and fry about 5 to 6 minutes covered over high heat (depending on the thickness) until the skin is crisp and the salmon meat has started becoming opaque. Carefully flip over with a spatula and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes, or until just cooked.

Arrange the salmon fillets on a serving platter and spoon the snap peas around and on top. Serve with steamed brown rice.

Calories: 370 ⁄ Protein: 34 g ⁄ Carbohydrate: 11 g ⁄ Fiber: 3 g⁄ Sodium: 570 mg
Saturated fat: 3 g ⁄ Polyunsaturated fat: 5 g ⁄ Monounsaturated fat: 11 g
Trans fat: 0 g ⁄ Cholesterol: 85 mg


A Meal Fit for Company

Today I bring you a full menu rather than one dish.  This meal is simple, delicious, quick and relatively healthy.  It can be multiplied to serve a crowd without much more effort or additional funds, and thus it is also a recent addition to my running list of “dinners fit for company costing less than $20.”

I thank Whole Foods, as much as anybody, for the idea.  I had been given the opportunity to shop there due to an overnight stay in Cambridge, MA and I was awed at the prospect.  For a girl that lives way, way up on the North Shore, the visit to this shopping Mecca where the peppers are never bruised and you can choose from 8 flavors of wood-smoked salmon was a treat indeed.  Thus, it took me about an hour and a half (no joke) to get through all the aisles.  There was a lot of internal dialogue involved, wherein I argued my need for fancy organic granola (“it has currants! Not raisins, currants! And coconut flakes!”) against the persistent reality of my checking account balance (“no you do not need Plugra butter”).  Plus, I had to decide what form of protein I was least likely to get at my home grocery, either because they don’t carry it or my husband won’t eat it.

I finally settled on a balanced, colorful meal of panko-crusted flounder, creamy Spinach, and roasted butternut squash with cranberries.  As the outline of the menu unfolds below, you may initially cringe at some of the flavor combos but let me tell you, these dishes really did work well together.  I would make this meal again in a heartbeat – or at least in 24 hours, if you promise me a ride to Whole Foods.

Roasted Butternut Squash with Cranberries

1 large butternut squash, peeled and scraped of seeds
3/4 c. to 1 c. fresh cranberries

Olive Oil
Maple Syrup

Preheat oven to 400˚F.   Cut butternut squash into medium-sized chunks, approximately 1 1/2 inches square.  Add them to a large mixing bowl toss with olive oil to coat.  Spread squash in a baking dish large enough to fit the squash in a single layer, not overlapping but not inches apart either.  Next, pour the cranberries (as much as you like, really) into the mixing bowl and coat with another tablespoon or so of olive oil.  Scatter the cranberries in and around the butternut squash pieces.  Sprinkle the whole pan with salt to taste, and then lightly drizzle with maple syrup, making sure that every bite of squash gets at least a couple drops.  Roast for about 1 hour – test the squash by stabbing a piece with a fork.  If you pull the fork back the squash should easily slip off the tines.   If it wants to follow with the fork, return the squash to the oven and roast for another 10 minutes before checking again.  When done, some of the cranberries will be blackened and shriveled – I think they’re yummy like this.  If you prefer your cranberries all to be juicy and full, add them halfway through the cooking rather than with the squash at the beginning.

Creamy Spinach and Mushrooms (sauce adapted from the Joy of Cooking)
3/4 c. milk
1/4 onion or 1 clove crushed garlic
bay leaf
pinch of nutmeg
3 Tbs. butter, divided
2 Tbs flour
4 oz. cremini mushrooms, sliced
1 lb. spinach or baby spinach
1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1/4 c. grated cheese (gruyere, Jarlsberg, parmesan or some combination)

First simmer the milk with the onion (or garlic), bay leaf and nutmeg in a small pot for about 15 minutes.  Remove the solids (onion or garlic and bay leaf) and then set aside.  In a separate saucepan, melt the 2 tablespoons of butter, then whisk in the flour over low heat until fragrant, about 1 minute.  Slowly whisk in the milk mixture and return to low heat.  Simmer, whisking frequently, until thickened to a soup-like consistency (as you can see from the picture, I didn’t wait long enough…).  In the meantime, melt the final tablespoon of butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat.  Add the cremini mushrooms and cook until lightly browned.  Add the spinach and stir gently until the spinach is cooked down.  To the milk sauce, add the mustard, followed by the grated cheese, stirring to blend.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Drain any excess liquid from the mushroom and spinach mixture.  Add the sauce to the cooked spinach gradually until you reach the creaminess level you are comfortable with.  For some, a touch of the sauce is plenty, others want the whole mess of it.

Sun-dried Tomato Panko-Crusted Flounder
3 filets of flounder (or 1 per person)
2 eggs
2 cups of Sun-dried Tomato Panko flakes (mine were courtesy of Whole foods, but feel free to make your own with chopped parsley, minced sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh breadcrumbs)

Here’s a simple one – pat the fish filets dry with paper towel.  Beat the eggs together in a shallow bowl or platter.  Dip the fish filets, one by one, in the egg to coat.  Let the excess egg drip back into the bowl, then dredge the filets in the breadcrumbs, turning to coat.  Over medium-high heat, melt a tablespoon of butter in a nonstick pan.  Lay the filets in the pan and cook about 3 minutes on one side, then flip to cook the other side for about a minute and a half.  Check for doneness – the fish should be opaque, not translucent – then transfer to dinner plates.