What happens to old cooking trends after they die?
Case in point: we own a full-size French fish poacher. It’s lurking in our basement like a giant carp resting on the bottom of a pond. How it ended up there is no mystery. It’s a beast, an unwieldy piece of steel, heavy as plate armor, a narrow oval the better part of a yard long, six inches deep and task-specific to the point of disdain. If we want to poach a swordfish the size of East Providence, we can winch the damn thing upstairs. It has no other uses. Unless you count its possible utility a planter. Still, we hang on to it. Our children will inherit it.
During the first flush of the culinary revolution led by Julia Child, James Beard and their contemporaries quite a few devices escaped their imprisonment in restaurant kitchens and found refuge with sympathetic home cooks (why do you think people today chop shallots with surgical steel instead of the steak knives you used to get at gas stations?). If some of those early escapees couldn’t adapt to civilian life (fish poacher), so what? We tested our limits, and we’re better for it. We make pho now. Who wants to go back to the days when Swiss fondue was exotic, if not daring, and fashionable parties were built around omelettes, for God’s sake? (Rent the 1970 movie Diary of a Mad Housewife if you don’t believe me.) If nothing else, we’ve become more educated cooks and diners.
Once in awhile a technique drops off the radar for no more reason than the fact that everyone everywhere seems to be doing it, and becoming aware they’re doing it. That’s my theory about cooking seafood en papillote – baking it in parchment – a perfectly respectable technique that became a menu cliché, probably because it’s so easy and effective. Some people believe the trimmed parchment sheet used to fold a papillote resembles a young lycée student’s outline of a papillon, a butterfly. I think it resembles a young lycée student’s outline of a heart, but I must be in the minority. In any event papillon becomes papillote, a butterfly-shaped package.
Cooking in parchment is both simple and easy, the antithesis of using a fish poacher. You place a piece of seasoned seafood on your butterfly cut-out, throw in some cut vegetables, fresh herbs, and a bit of fat in the form of butter, olive oil or coconut milk. Fold the butterfly in half, crimping the edges of the wings together, and then bake it.
Ten or fifteen minutes later everyone gets their own very cool package to open. Lots of oohs and aahs and no roasting pans to clean. You can even use parchment made from recycled paper like we did, or foil, although with foil you don’t get that wonderful crackly effect that you do with baked paper. Edible origami.
Jody and I don’t consign anything to the dustbin of culinary history. We just send it to the basement. Everything was new once and you never know when an out-of-fashion technique or piece of superannuated kitchen equipment will put in a return appearance, revivified in its absence. Plus, you need a whole-poached-fish period in your life to bulk up your culinary muscles. And if ten-pound halibut become the thing to serve your friends this winter, you’ll know where to find me – in the basement.
Curried Cod Baked in Parchment
- 8 teaspoons unsalted butter or 4 teaspoons butter and 4 tablespoons coconut milk
- 4 ounces cauliflower florettes
- 2 tablespoons very thinly sliced garlic scapes or 4 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice + more after the fish is done
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
- 4 pieces of cod, skinned and boned, approximately 4 ounces each, about 1 inch thick (or any other firm-fleshed fish, skinned and boned, such as halibut, bass, or snapper)
- 1 teaspoon curry powder
- 16 sugar snap pea pods, split, strings removed
- 4 sprigs mint or a handful of chive blossoms for garnish (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350°.
- Cut 4 sheets of parchment into hearts. The width of each heart is about the width of the roll of parchment. Look at the photograph to get an idea of their size and orientation. Crease them down the center like Valentines, then open them back up. Brush the exposed surface of each heart with 1 teaspoon butter, leaving a 1-inch border untouched all the way around.
- Using a mandoline or a very sharp knife, cut the cauliflower into slices ⅛-inch thick. Put the cauliflower into a bowl with the scapes or scallions, season with salt, pepper, a tablespoon of lime juice, and 1 teaspoon mint. Toss well.
- Arrange the cauliflower over one side of each heart in a single layer, leaving the 1-inch border free. Again, see the photo. Don’t rinse the bowl.
- Put the cod into the cauliflower bowl, season all over with salt, pepper, curry powder and the remaining lime juice. Toss gently to coat each piece with the seasonings. Set a piece of cod atop the cauliflower. Sprinkle with mint, dot with the remaining butter (or sprinkle with coconut milk). Put 4 sugar snap pea pods on top of each piece of fish.
- Fold the empty half of the heart over the cod and vegetables, securing the edges with a series of overlapping folds. Start at the rounded end, working your way down to the point, twisting it into a tail. Tuck the tail under the bundle. We’ve left it up in the photograph so you can see it.
- Transfer the packages to a sheet pan. Bake 10 minutes, or until the fish is done. Let rest 4 minutes. To serve, cut a cross in the top of each package. Peel back the paper and garnish with mint sprigs or chive blossoms.
The last time I wrote a recipe for fish baked in parchment was 1997 so when Ken brought up the idea of fish en papillotte it was a total blast from the past.
I wanted to use stuff currently available at farmers’ markets. Garlic scapes and sugar snap peas were expected, but the cauliflower was a surprise, as was the cod that a vendor was selling out of his truck in the parking lot at Allandale Farm. Back home I landed on the idea of tying the peas and cauliflower together with curry, and I stuck to the French spirit of the technique by using butter. (Feel free to add a little more butter to the recipe if you want to.)
Fish in parchment can be prepared ahead and refrigerated, takes just 10 minutes to bake, and is tasty and healthy. . . leaving room for cheese or chocolate after dinner. Nothing with the same wow factor is anything near as easy to make.
After testing the recipe using only butter, we had some extra ingredients and since Ken had lobbied for coconut milk, I humored him by trying it. It was good, but missing something. Roxanne figured it out: “Don’t they put sugar in some Thai food?” We added a sprinkle of sugar, then tasted it again. She was right.
This particular recipe should get you started cooking in parchment. The formula’s pretty simple: firm fish; vegetables; butter, coconut milk, or olive oil; fresh herbs; some sliced lemon if you like. Remember to cut the vegetables thinly or they won’t by done by the time the fish finishes. Let the bundles rest for 4-5 minutes before serving.