When I first learned how to cook fish en papillote it felt a bit like I was learning magic. You cut a heart out of parchment paper, add a piece of fish, some seasonings, close it and bake it for 15 minutes. When you open the oven you have an exotic presentation of puffed up pillow containing a steaming hot and perfectly prepared serving of fish. How can that be anything short of enchanted?
Creating magic from fish is important because with the possible exception of fish baked in salt there is no real WOW factor with the little water dwellers. No conversation stopping first bite of an elegant and rich red wine sauce that had been stewing for hours and hours. No meat falling off of the bone for guests to oooooh and aaaaaah over. No tower high assemblage of pastry and chocolate. No, fish is just kind of fish. Even when you dress it up.
The first time our friends Jonathan and Sidonie came over for dinner I thought I was a genius for making pan roasted salmon with a roasted red pepper buerre blanc. Jonathan laughed, “We always get served salmon” he said. “It’s what people make if they don’t know what you eat.” WHAT? I was mortified. Seriously. Mortified. To me salmon was the perfect choice. Safe. Delicious. Great with wine. But predictable? I wasn’t expecting predictable. Jonathan broke me. Even an eye roll and laugh by his wife, “Oh Jonathan! Jessica, we love salmon” (which I took to mean: STFU) didn’t do the trick.
That night, and for months after, I thought — Really? Do people always really serve salmon? Even people who have not been to culinary school and travelled the world? They make Salmon too? So THAT is why there is always so much at the grocery store. It was definitely time to up my game.
The trick is that I still had to keep it simple. I am all about dinner parties being simple and fun with food that is outstanding but basic enough that it doesn’t commander the situation. That always stands out as a little selfish to me. Like the host is saying, “Come to my house and see how amazing I am!” Instead of, “Come to my house and visit with fantastic people!” So I always want to serve incredible food that everyone loves — but it has to be simple.
You can play around with the toppings, add some sautéed chopped up mushrooms or tomatoes cooked down with garlic and basil, or just a sprig of thyme. You can also add some very finely sliced carrots, squash or other veggies and they cook at the same time as the fish. Once you brave it – once you figure out that even though it has a French name and a puffy presentation fish en papillote is a piece of cake, it opens up so many possibilities for you.
Get this: you can also prep it in the morning or even the night before if your fish is super fresh and it will simply be oven ready when you are. Just do all of the prep, including closing up the hearts, place the prepared packets on baking sheets ready to go into the oven and refrigerate until you are ready to cook them.
Lastly, this may sound silly, but kids LOVE it. Seriously. Tearing open a paper bubble to eat fish? That’s got “fun-for-people-under-5-foot-tall” written all over it.
- Parchment paper
- 4 6-oz pieces white fish (cod, snapper)
- 8 small sprigs of thyme
- 8-12 Castelveltrano olives
- 4 teaspoons dry white wine
- 4 teaspoons olive oil
- 1 egg, beaten
- Preheat oven to 450°F / 230°C
- Fold four 20-inch pieces of parchment in half lengthwise and cut out enormous, fat hearts.
- Unfold and place one piece of fish near the center but on one side of the center fold of the heart.
- Top the fish with two sprigs of thyme, 2 or 3 olives, a teaspoon of white wine, a teaspoon of olive oil, a pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper.
- Brush one side of the the outer edge of the parchment with beaten egg. Fold parchment over fish, making small overlapping folds along edge. Place on rimmed baking sheets and bake until parchment puffs, 12-15 minutes. Serve immediatley on plates with fish still in the parchment paper. Guests should carefully cut packets taking care to avoiding the escaping steam.