Published March 1, 2009.
Unless you’re a whiz at origami, parchment-baked fish can be long on labor and short on flavor. Here’s how we foiled these problems.
When done correctly, cooking en papillote—where the food is baked in a tightly sealed, artfully folded parchment package to essentially steam in its own juices—is an easy, mess-free way to enhance delicate flavor, particularly that of fish. The fish cooks quickly in a moist environment and requires little additional fat. If you throw in vegetables, it should add up to a light but satisfying “one-pouch” meal. However, without the right blend of flavorings, the fish can taste lean and bland. Not all vegetables pair well with fish, and careful consideration must be given to their size and whether precooking is necessary, or you can wind up with overcooked fish surrounded by undercooked vegetables.
We wanted to create an approach worthy of this technique’s haute roots, with moist, flaky fish and tender-firm vegetables flavored by the rich, aromatic goodness of their mingled juices.
We began by sandwiching the fish between two squares of aluminum foil, then crimping the edges to create an airtight seal that locked in steam. The next step was to figure out what type of fish worked best and how long it would take to cook. After trying a variety of fish fillets, we chose flaky, mild haddock and cod over more assertive salmon or tuna—in the moist foil pouch, these oilier fish overpowered the vegetables.
Since the goal of cooking en papillote is to create enough steam from the food’s own juices, most recipes recommended cranking the heat way up to 500 degrees. Though a wet method like this one is more forgiving than a dry approach like roasting, such high heat seemed excessive. After experimentation, we arrived at the ideal temperature and cooking time—hot enough to produce steam relatively quickly but not so hot that the food overcooked. Placing the packets on the lower-middle rack of the oven close to the heat source concentrated the exuded liquid and deepened its flavor.
We then selected the vegetables. Dense ones like potatoes failed to cook evenly in the foil packets, even when parcooked. Absorbent eggplant cooked into mush in all the moisture. Others, such as broccoli, overpowered the delicate fish flavor. But the most important aspect was how the vegetables were prepared before they went into the packets. Carrots and leeks could be added raw, provided they were cut into matchsticks. Fennel paired well with fish, but needed to be wilted slightly in the microwave to become tender within the brief cooking time. The zucchini was much improved—and the juices in the packet less diluted—if we salted it first to get rid of excess moisture. While tasters liked these fish and vegetable pairings, many felt that the components lacked harmony and that the dish tasted a little too lean. A dash of vermouth boosted flavor but not enough. What if we created a topping to flavor the fish as it cooked? A tomato, garlic, and olive oil “salsa” added kick to the zucchini variation, while compound butters flavored with garlic, herbs, and zest enlivened the others. These toppings basted the fish as it cooked and mingled with the wine and juices given off by the vegetables, leaving behind an aromatic, full-flavored sauce that perfectly complemented the fish.list of recipes