Tag Archives: cooking at home

Dinner in a Flash: Swordfish en Papillote

Don’t let that fancy name scare you away. Cooking “en papillote,” or in a paper pouch, is one of the easiest and most delicious ways to cook fish. You’re essentially creating simple little steam ovens made of paper: the moisture stays fully enclosed in the packet and all the flavor of both the fish and the added seasonings is trapped inside. Otherwise the technique’s as convenient as baking, you just pop the packets in the oven and let the magic happen. Which is exactly what I did last night for dinner.

It may look like an intimidating prospect, but wrapping up in paper isn’t tough. I first learned this curved version of folding the paper, but you can just as well fold in the sides in even straight lines. Though the curved method does seem to hold itself together better. I always start on the right side and fold over at shifting angles to work around toward the other side; than when done, twist the last bit of paper  to secure it, creating a little tail. If you need a couple strategically placed staples to hold things together the first couple of tries, no worries. You’ll get the hang of it! You can even do this with foil instead of paper; a bit less aesthetically pleasing but it holds those folds like a dream.

The technique works best for lean, quick-cooking foods like fish and boneless, skinless chicken breasts. I haven’t ventured very far outside that spectrum. When looking at the meat or seafood case, ask yourself “would I want [fill in the blank] steamed?” and it might help guide your choices. 

I like to keep the seasonings simple when I go the papillote route. In my Wild Mushrooms cookbook, I chose to showcase the beguiling matsutake mushroom in a papillote recipe with chicken breast. The thinly sliced mushroom covers the chicken breast, then a little splash of sake and soy is added before wrapping up to bake. The simple, earthly flavors coalesced beautifully.

But back to last night. The basic combo I chose then was swordfish, herbs and garlic. Thanks to our early spring weather here in Seattle, I was able to pluck tender tarragon, bronze fennel and thyme from the garden. Then I thinly sliced a big fat clove of garlic on my handy little mandoline slicer. I laid the frond of fennel down on the paper first. It’s good to place the food just below the center point of a large piece of the parchment paper. (Don’t scrimp on the paper, it should be about 2 feet long; you’ll thank me later.) I like setting the fish on a little bed of something just to add a bit more flavor from the bottom up. It could be thinly sliced yellow or red onion, leeks, green onions, other herbs. But just a thin layer; this is a quick cooking method and you don’t want a volume of leeks to impede the packet being cooked evenly in 8 to 10 minutes.

With the swordfish steak sitting on its bed of fennel, I topped the fish with whole leaves of tarragon and plucked leaves from the thyme sprigs. A pinch of salt and pepper. A tiny splash (maybe 1 teaspoon) of dry vermouth. Then on with the folding! I made these a couple of hours in advance, set them on the baking sheeting and popped it in the fridge until we were ready to eat. A nice do-ahead option, though I wouldn’t prep it too much in advance or the liquid risks softening the paper too much, impeding the effectiveness of the mini-steam-oven effect.

I baked these packets for about 9 minutes at 400°F. One thing about papillote is that the visual-cue-of-doneness factor is eliminated. So you have to gain some comfort with cooking to doneness based on time, adjusting for the thickness and density of the food you’re cooking. Those chicken breasts, for example, I cooked for about 18 minutes. These fish steaks were about 1 inch thick. I’d say in general a minimum time might be 7 to 8 minutes for a thinner piece of fish, up to 20 max for chicken, but I’d recommend staying within that range.

One of the benefits of papillote cooking is that when you first tear open the packet there’s a lovely waft of aromatic steam that rises to entice you. It’s fun to transfer the whole packets to the dinner plates and allow your guests to enjoy that for themselves, warning them of course that the steam’s hot, so not TOO close! Just a simple tear in the top of the packet reveals the juicy, flavorful treat inside. A little drama to go with dinner. And it was, if I do say so myself, pretty scrumptious.

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A New Project: Tasty Fun and Games

I’ve had a Blondie comic strip tacked just above my desk for a while now. In it, Dagwood’s playing poker with his pals, shuffling the cards only to have them all fly out of his hands with a P-R-R-R-T (one of those clever comic sound effects). The others decide that Dagwood’s not allowed to shuffle the cards with those greasy-pizza fingers of his ever again.

gameclosetGames are big in this house. The photo here is just a couple shelves of our “game closet,” where most other people would keep their towels and linens. Before seeing that Blondie strip, the germ of an idea for a cookbook full of game-friendly foods had already planted itself in my head. An idea that the strip’s sentiment perfectly echoed. The recipes would feature items that don’t require you putting down your cards to pick up a knife and fork. Plates that won’t take up so much table space that the dinner is competing with the dominoes. Foods that won’t leave traces of sauce or juice or oiliness on your fingers, so you can go about sculpting Cranium clay, rolling dice or–are you listening Dagwood?–shuffling cards without messy mishaps.

The date on that comic strip? May 2, 2002. It’s an idea that’s been growing and developing for a number of years now, finally in full gear. I’m deep into testing and writing of my latest project, Game Night Food, which will be published by Ten Speed Press early next year (the same folks who published the lovely Rover’s cookbook I co-wrote with chef Thierry Rautureau a few years ago).

I  love a lot about my work as a food writer. Okay, not so much the endless hours in front of the computer screen taxing my story-telling skills in crafting an article or essay or other narrative exercise. That’s still hard, though rewarding when it’s all done and submitted.

But what I really love is sitting at my computer and dreaming up recipes, gameplatethen going into my kitchen to test, hone, polish and develop into a delicious, relatively fail-safe candidate for a project such as this. With, in this case, the added creative challenge of preparations and presentations that fulfill the ultimate goal of the book: a game night dinner party that isn’t about having dinner then playing games, but an evening in which dinner and games intermingle perfectly.

What I really, really love is that this book is truly fun and games. Not only is cooking and creating the recipes enjoyable in itself — for this project I’m putting the recipes through real-world rigors as much as possible. Which means gathering friends and family around the table often for work-meets-play Game Nights, to sample the recipes and offer their feedback, while also confirming that they’re game-friendly, tidy and ultimately satisfying as I hope they will be. So far not too many duds thankfully. Some early favorites include mini gameslamb burgers with feta, chilled avocado soup with roasted poblano cream (served in an espresso cup or tall shot glass) and large pasta shells stuffed with kale and ricotta.

I’ll surely be sharing a few more details with you as the project progresses. But in the meantime, do you have any favorite game night stories or scenarios you’d like to share? A great new game you can recommend (my editor turned me on to The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Game, which is a hoot), or a longtime family favorite that never fails to entertain and help you unwind with your friends? Bring on the fun. And may all your game nights be delicious ones!

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My Kind of Fast Food

When I left for La Varenne cooking school back in the summer of 1989, I thought I had a tidy 9 months ahead of me. But what already was clearly going to be a fascinating adventure became even more so when the excursion got extended a few different times and became 2 1/2 years of French bliss. I finished my degree as planned, but stayed on for new opportunities that presented themselves. It became something of a bohemian lifestyle, moving a lot, often back and forth between Paris and the northern Burgundy countryside where the school’s Château du Feÿ is located (and currently for sale, if you’re in the market for an amazing château property!). Even in Paris, I lived many different places: a spare room in a family apartment, a spare apartment in the La Varenne building, even on a friend’s couch in the Austrian Embassy for a week or two (he was the chef and I was between gigs).

By far my favorite spot, though, was the tiny apartment where I hung my chapeau for 6 or 8 months while working for Patricia Wells and still keeping my fingers in some La Varenne work (just prior to Anne Willan having begun the Look & Cook book series, which kept me in France for another year). The bed in this very small nook of an apartment, on Rue de Trois Frères just below the basilica Sacré Coeur in Montmartre, was on a platform raised above some of the living space. The kitchen so small I had an under-counter fridge and just 2 electric burners with which to cook. Did I mind? Not in the least. To have any Paris real estate to call my own was like heaven, and my windows looked out onto a backyard garden with a peek-a-boo view of the Eiffel Tower.

Needless to say, I did very little cooking in that kitchen. I became a quick

the fixings

the fixings

regular at the nondescript café Le Favorit on my block and took advantage of amazing to-go foods available at nearby markets. I did come up with one “signature dish,” however, inspired by this experience: chicken with endive. Now and then, on my way home from work, I’d buy half of a rotisserie chicken from a streetside vendor and pick up a few heads of Belgian endive. With just a skillet, a dab of butter and a few splashes of white wine, this became such a satisfying meal for such limited resources.

sauteing the endive

It was with that dose of nostalgia that I recreated the meal a week or two ago. I bought a whole rotisserie chicken at the grocery store and a bunch of endive, reliving for a moment the delicious simplicity of that slice of my life back in Paris. I halved the endive heads and cut out the core at the base of the leaves, which harbors bitter flavors.  Then halved each piece again into quarters. After heating a combo of butter and olive oil in a skillet, in goes the endive to saute for a bit. I don’t stir much, more just gently swirling the skillet and carefully turning the endive pieces; ideally I try to keep the portions together as much as I can. Though the random few leaves that separate? They’ll just caramelize a bit more and bring some extra, lovely flavor to the dish. It’s all good.

When the endive had started to soften and seemed about half cooked, I topped it with the portioned chicken. I drizzled a good 1/3 cup or so of dry vermouth into the pan, topped it loosely with a piece of foil and reduced the heat to low. Twenty minutes or so later, the endive will be tender, the chicken will be gently reheated and dinner will be ready to serve. If there’s liquid left in the skillet or the endive looks a bit pale, crank up the heat for a minute to polish things off.

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