Date Night: Salmon en Papillote

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

With a newborn and two other small kiddos, getting out for dates is hard. So, the weekly date night has been reinstituted! Here's a wonderful recipe inspired by one of my culinary mentors and  someone I could only hope and dream to ever meet: Jacques Pepin.

En Papillote means "in paper" and is reference to a cooking technique-turned-dish whereby the protein (usually some sort of fish) is cooked along with vegetables, flavors, aromatics, and seasonings within a package made completely of paper. The idea is genious: by creating this dome of paper, you create a greenouse effect inside so the fish and vegetables can cook and flavor each other. This is a wonderful technique if you're dieting as well, because they're no need for copious amounts of fat like say for saute or frying or even oven-roasting. The paper creates the necessary barrier between the tender fish and vegetables whereby keeping everything inside very moist and tender.

The technique is a little tricky at first, and you will screw up the folding part and forget a step until you've done it a few times and get the hang of it. But once you do it two, three times you'll be able to knock these out without even thinking. There are a few things to keep in mind for the perfect en papillote:

1. Pick something that will cook fast enough but not too fast to place inside. This means fish is the best bet. However, keep in mind more so the cut of fish rather than the actual choice of fish. You want a thinner slice of salmon if you're going to do such a hearty choice -- something no more than 1/2" thick. White fish tend to cook very fast, so halibut, sea bass, even monkfish can afford to go thicker. Very, very think fish like trout, snapper, tilapia, rockfish yield wonderfully to this technique as well, just make sure to cut your vegetables even thinner then so they all cook properly and you don't have perfectly cooked fish and still-raw vegetables.

2.  Keep your vegetables simple, colorful, flavorful, and sliced thinly! Carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, shallots (as opposed to the clumsier onion), scallion, garlic, citrus thinly sliced, asparagus, tomatoes, fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, mint, leafy greens like spinach, arugula, mizuna, heartier but still quick cooking items like bean sprouts...these are all wonderful selections to include in the paper. Thicker, longer-cooking-required vegetables like broccoli or kale, beets (unless sliced paper thin with a mandolin)...these take far longer to cook than it will take the fish inside. Skip them and serve them on the side if you must.

You want to also make sure you slice your vegetables very, very thinly. This will ensure they cook properly and become tender. The thinner the fish you use, the thinner the vegetable must be sliced. Match-stick cuts for longer vegetables like zucchini and carrots work perfectly, but if you prefer to be fancy you can even shave them or slice them with a mandolin. If I were having a dinner party and serving this, I probably would go that route for presentation's sake. But for every day, a nice thin cut with your knife is just fine.

3.  Keep the seasonings simple and complimentary! Of course you can experiment and do crazy flavors, but the idea here is the vegetables you've selected to include will flavor the fish, and vice versa. There's no real need for fancy marinades and crazy salts and spice blends here. Using those will defeat the purpose of adding all the vegetables (and the healthiness factor of this dish!). Just keep things complimentary with each other. Thyme goes very well with practically everything. Rosemary is heartier and goes famously with mushroom but not so great with carrots I think. Oregano is lovely with tomatoes and zucchini. Mint is a little trickier -- keep it with citrus and a light white fish like tilapia. Cilantro and parsley go with everything. And of course, nothing beats a good course sea salt and freshly ground black pepper!

Now, on to the recipe!

This makes for two people, designed for a perfect date night meal. However, this can obviously be extended out for a perfect meal for 4-8 people. Basically you're limited to how much oven space you have. My recipe is a classic combination based on Jacques' classic recipe. It's perfect and SO flavorful, it will blow your mind. Please include the mushrooms -- you'll be shocked how much flavor they add to the whole dish and in my opinion, really distinguish it from other en papillotes.

Salmon en Papillote
2 filets salmon (skin off and deboned)
course sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
little olive oil -- about 1 Tbsp worth
1 carrot -- peeled and cut into match sticks
1 zucchini -- peeled and cut into match sticks
1 large (or 2 small) shallot -- peeled and sliced thinly
1/2 cup sliced baby bella mushrooms
6 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 Tbsp good European butter

Special Equipment: parchment paper (NOT WAX PAPER)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Take the parchment paper and cut a large piece out, about double the size of a large cutting board. Take the paper and fold that in half, creating a rectangle about the size of a large cutting board. The double paper will ensure the fish and vegetables won't seep through and destroy the cooking in the oven!

Brush both sides of the salmon with some oil and season both sides with salt and pepper. Place the salmon on the left half of the paper. Add half of the vegetables and thyme and sprinkle them on top of the salmon and to the sides. Like this:

Season the vegetables with a little salt and pepper to taste, and top with a piece of butter (see above). Now, fold over the right side of the paper up and over the fish and vegetables until you meet the paper on the other side. Starting at the edge of the crease, begin folding the paper over onto itself, creating a border like so:

The trick is to very tighly fold the paper, so go slowly and carefully, smoothing out the folds so they are secure as you go. If you don't pay careful attention to this, steam will escape during the cooking process and your fish will be overcooked and hard, and everything won't cook properly.

Place the finished packets on a baking sheet. You can brush the tops with some vegetable oil if you like to help the paper brown -- Jacque recommends this for presentation purposes -- or you can skip this step. Bake in oven 10 minutes (or less if using a thinner fish -- something thin like tilapia will only take 7 minutes! something like halibut or sea bass will take more like 10-12!) then remove from the oven and let stand a minute.

When ready to serve, simply transfer an enitre package onto a plate. A large spatula (or two!) works great for this. Then cut open with a knife and let steam escape. Be careful -- the steam can be very, very hot and burn. Serve right in the paper and enjoy the amazing flavors!

Note: The vegetables and fish will create their own juices, fortified by the butter you added. The reason why you serve the dish in the paper is to keep those juices intact with the rest of the dish. Plus, it's fun to eat out of paper once in a while!

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