Friday, June 1, 2018

A Spring Celebration, Still Good in Summer

What’s cooking? Whitefish en Papillote with Tomatoes, Snap Peas, and Herb Butter


In the runup to my husband’s birthday, I often focus on the foods he likes. We’ve been married just long enough that we’ve given each other just about every variation on a present – from wildly extravagant, like the year I took him to Pebble Beach to play golf, to the thoughtful-but-truly-unexciting, like a new book by one of his favorite authors.

And he’s not nearly as thrilled as I am to look for a hot new restaurant for the celebration, so that part often comes down to something from the Kitchen Goddess.

Back in our just-married days, when we lived in Manhattan, there was a darling little Italian restaurant in our neighborhood. (Frankly, there’s a darling little Italian restaurant in almost every neighborhood of NYC. It’s a New York thing.) We went there often, which is what you can do when you have two salaries and no kids, and his favorite dish was Striped Bass al Cartoccio.

These days, when he thinks about that dish, he always pronounces it “al car-TOE-chee-o” using his best Italian accent and arms open wide in his best Italian opera singer imitation. But for some reason, I’ve never tried to duplicate the preparation.

Then not long ago, among the daily onslaught of food-related emails I get – remember when it was actually fun and exciting to get email? – I came across one for “fish packets.” Ah, said the Kitchen Goddess, this will be just the thing. And so it was.

The concept is amazingly simple: fish baked in a tightly closed envelope of parchment (or sometimes foil), often with herbs, lemon slices, or other seasonings. The package holds in the moisture, to steam the fish. The envelope is generally opened at the table, so guests can smell the aroma when it opens. It’s called en papillote in French, al cartoccio in Italian – but whatever you call it, it’s a technique well worth learning.

This particular preparation fairly sings “spring,” with the light flavors of herbs and tomatoes and sugar snap peas. The fish stays moist and light because it cooks quickly, so the veggies stay a tiny bit crisp; the smear of butter on top and underneath the fish makes sure those flavors go all the way through it. The parchment holds enough of the heat in that the dish is actually warm when you open it on your plate. Just the smells that come out of that little package will have you swooning.

Another amazon find
This is a dish that looks fancy, but is in fact incredibly easy. You can make the herb butter the day before, but if you do, be sure to let it sit out at room temperature for at least 30 minutes, so that it will spread easily.

A little kitchen wisdom: butter is fine at room temperature (covered) for at least a couple of days, unless your kitchen is really warm. The KG often leaves hers out overnight in a dish like the one at the right, for easier spreading on toast in the morning.

Kitchen Goddess note about parchment paper: The hardest part about parchment paper is that it generally comes in a roll, and getting those sheets to flatten out is a challenge. But the KG has a solution or two for that little wrinkle: (1) crumple the sheets, then smooth them out (This is an amazingly effective method, as long as you’re not put off by serving slightly wrinkled packets); (2) follow the Kitchen Goddess’s example and buy pre-cut sheets that come already flat. KG buys hers at, but your local baking supply shop may carry them.

Whitefish en Papillote with Tomatoes, Snap Peas, and Herb Butter

Adapted from Katherine Sacks on Epicurious (September 2017)

For the herbs, the Kitchen Goddess used thyme and dill and parsley, because that’s what was in the garden; cilantro and chives would also be good candidates.

To serve 4.

For the herb butter:
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature (Let it sit out while you get your mise-en-place.)
2-3 tablespoons finely chopped tender herbs
1½  teaspoons kosher salt, divided
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning the fish

For the fish:
1 pound sugar snap peas, trimmed and thinly sliced lengthwise
1 pint cherry tomatoes (about 2½ cups), quartered
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
four ½-inch thick skinless fillets of white fish, like flounder or tilapia (about 6 ounces each)
Paprika (smoked or sweet)
¼ cup shredded fresh basil leaves (See my post on 50 Ways to Love Your Basil for step-by-step on chiffonade technique)

Special Equipment: four sheets of parchment paper (about 12 inches by 16 inches each)

Preheat your oven to 400°F.

For the herb butter:
In a small bowl, combine the butter, herbs, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper. Let it sit out while you prepare the veggies.

Assembling the packets:
Lay a parchment sheet flat on a work surface. Smear 1 tablespoon of the herb butter in the center of the sheet, in a streak about the length of the fish and an inch or so wide. Arrange one-quarter of the snap peas, tomatoes, and garlic evenly over the butter.

Place a fish fillet on top of the vegetables, then smear another tablespoon of the herb butter on top of the fish. Season the fish with ⅛ teaspoon of salt, a pinch of pepper, and a sprinkling of paprika.

The KG couldn't get 6-ounce fillets -- only very thin 2-ounce fillets -- so she used 3 in each packet. You have to be flexible.

Fold the long sides of the parchment together over the fish (like you would with a sandwich that you’re wrapping for a picnic lunch). Gather the ends of the paper, then fold and tuck them under the fish to form a packet. [KG Note: There are lots of ways – most of them more complicated – to fold parchment around the fish, but as long as the ends of the parchment are well tucked under the fish, the butter and moisture won’t escape and you’ll be fine.]

Carefully move the packet to a baking sheet, and repeat the assembly process for each of the other fillets.

Depending on the size of the fish, you may be able to fit all four on a single, large, rimmed baking sheet. If not, use a second baking sheet. Just make sure all four packets are resting solidly on the sheet in a single layer.

Bake at 400ยบ until just cooked through, about 12-13 minutes. If you want to test, insert a skewer through the parchment and into the fish. If it slides through the fillet easily, your fish is done. Carefully unfold the packets (steam will escape), and sprinkle the tops of the fish with ribboned basil.

A final note: You can make the butter 2-3 days ahead, and refrigerate it; just be sure to let it come to room temperature before you try working with it. Fish packets can be assembled up to 4 hours ahead and chilled. Let them sit at room temperature for 15 minutes before cooking.