- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2003

LONDON — I’m on vacation, so called. The pavements of London are notoriously hard, as I found when pounding them all day long. I’m tired, hardly the moment to try the unobtrusive little place in a side street that has been so glowingly recommended by a friend. But half an hour and a glass of wine later, life has improved.

A puffed, golden brown paper package is set before me. The server takes a quick snip with scissors, steps back, and a savory waft of garlic and herbs hints at the treat inside.

I pull back the paper, and everything is here: a rosy fillet of salmon topped with thinly sliced tomato and a sprig of dill, all set on a bed of sauteed fennel and rice. A feast.

To wrap ingredients in parchment paper and bake them in the oven may sound primitive, but as a method of cooking, it is remarkably efficient.

The paper case (often called a “papillote”) holds in sufficient moisture for the ingredients to steam in their own juices, blending and mellowing as the heat penetrates.

When cooked, a brisk head of steam forms that puffs the case like magic. You need foods that cook quite quickly, such as fish fillets or whole small fish like trout. Chicken breasts and lamb or pork chops are also candidates but first must be partially cooked.

A layer of vegetables should accompany the main ingredient, a saute of leeks or fennel, for instance, or a colorful julienne of squash and carrot. With some cooked rice or potato included, you have a full meal in a single “pot.”

Be sure to add plenty of lively seasonings to the package: garlic, chili, red peppers and aromatic herbs such as basil and tarragon. I’ve only one caution, and that is to go light on foods such as tomato and spinach that weep liquid as they cook. In a sealed paper case, they can create a swimming pool.

One question is the paper. Personally, I’m in favor of parchment paper that, when brushed with melted butter, browns agreeably and puffs dramatically from the steam of the hot food inside. The package is ready when puffed. It’s a simple, infallible test.

Foil is an alternative to parchment paper, and I must admit it is easier to fold. However, foil does not brown or puff, so you have to guess when the contents are cooked just right. Parchment paper versus foil is the classic trade-off of quality versus convenience, but I suppose you can’t have everything.

Certainly paper cases are a treat for the cook, as well as the diner. You can make a single package just for yourself, or multiply upward, limited only by the size of your oven. (Four packages per baking sheet is an average.) Not only do paper cases provide a complete meal, they can be assembled several hours ahead and baked just before serving, making them ideal for a party.

They provide a complete meal and a talking point as well. What can be hidden inside? Try the following.

Salmon with fennel, rice and herbs in a paper case

A great combination of only a few ingredients, these paper cases can be prepared up to 4 hours ahead and refrigerated, ready to bake at serving time.

2 tablespoons butter, more for the paper case

1 medium fennel bulb

Salt, pepper

Medium bunch dill

1 cups cooked white or brown rice

2 6-ounce pieces skinless salmon

3 to 4 tablespoons dry vermouth

For filling, melt butter in a frying pan, add fennel and salt and pepper to taste and saute, stirring, until tender and lightly browned, 7 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, strip dill leaves from stems, reserving two fronds for garnish. Chop dill leaves and stir into fennel with rice. Taste and adjust seasoning.

To make a paper case, fold a large sheet of parchment paper or foil in half and cut around it so that it is heart-shaped when unfolded. It should be at least 2 inches larger than the salmon. (Repeat procedure to make a second paper case.) Brush paper case all over with melted butter. Spread half of the fennel filling on one half of the paper to make a bed, top with salmon and a dill frond. Sprinkle salmon with half of vermouth and salt and pepper to taste. Repeat with remaining ingredients on other piece of paper.

Fold paper over the food to make half a heart. Carefully press edges together. (Melted butter will help seal them.) Starting at curve of the heart, make small double folds like a dress hem to seal edges together. Twist base of heart into a tail. Make sure seal is very tight; otherwise, the package will not puff.

To finish, bake packages in 400-degree oven until puffed and brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Paper packages deflate quickly, so serve them at once, passing a pair of scissors around the table for each guest to snip open his own package. Makes 2 servings.

Variation: Papillote of sea bass with julienne vegetables:

Leek for taste and carrot for color are a favorite mix of mine with fish, but you can substitute zucchini, celery or mushrooms in this vegetable julienne. The cooking method is the same as for the salmon.

In preceding salmon recipe, substitute sea bass for the salmon and omit fennel and rice. Make this vegetable julienne: Trim 1 medium leek and 2 small carrots and cut them in julienne strips. Toss them in a bowl with salt and pepper.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a frying pan, spread vegetables in a layer and press a piece of foil on top. Add a lid and sweat vegetables in their own juices over low heat until very tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Stir occasionally and do not let them brown. When done, stir 1 tablespoon chopped basil or dill into julienne, taste and adjust seasoning.

When assembling paper cases, spread vegetables under the fish. Close packages and bake as described in preceding recipe.




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