Perfect in Parchment   

I'll never forget how impressed I was the first time I was served a dish "en papillote." The parchment was beautifully golden brown and puffed. The aroma I enjoyed when I slit the pouch open was incredible. And even today, the thought of the tasty, tender vegetables and fish inside makes my mouth water.

For years I combed menus ordering dishes baked in parchment whenever I could. "En papillote" (
pronounced poppy yote) is a cooking technique where food gently steams in its own juices inside a parchment packet while baking in the oven. Aromatics such as herbs, vegetables, lemon and wine are added for flavor as well. There's no need to add fat, so it's very healthy. 

It never dawned on me to try it at home. For years I assumed it would be hard to do. It turns out that nothing could be further from the truth.

Almost 20 years after first eating that perfectly cooked pompano, I attended a cooking demonstration by the same chef, Shelley Caughey Adams of Ann Arbor's
The Earle Restaurant, who prepared my first "en papillote." Ironically, she showed me, and my fellow "classmates," that evening how easy it really is to replicate this technique in our own kitchens. And, it's quick!

Parchment is made by running sheets of paper through a sulfuric acid bath. This makes it super strong. It stays that way even when wet or hot and it will not absorb moisture or grease. It's typically packaged on a tube, like wax paper or aluminum foil, and can be purchased at most grocery stores or places selling kitchen gadgets such as Lechters or Bed Bath and Beyond. 

To make the pouch, cut a 12-15" square of parchment. Next, fold it in half and trim it to resemble a heart shape. Place the fish or meat in the center along the fold with the aromatics. Fold and crimp the outside edges to create a packet, or pouch. 

The folding technique requires a little practice, but it's worth the effort.
Sunday Supper has a great step-by-step with how-to pictures, explanations and recipes. Remember to press each fold firmly down with your fingers, and you'll be a master in no time.

When the packets are heated, steam builds up inside and cooks the contents. French chefs have been dazzling customers with food prepared this way for years. Typically, one serving is enclosed in each packet. Your signal that the cooking is complete is a nice golden, puffy packet. The chef, or you at home, then places the cooked packet on a serving plate, allowing each guest to open their own and smell the fresh-cooked dish as the steam bursts out. The effect is dramatic - much like bringing a souffle to the table. 

Cooking with Parchment Paper, by David DiResta, Nitty Gritty Cookbook series, is a great source for recipes, from appetizers to desserts and everything in between. It also has illustrations on the cutting and folding technique.

And finally, a word on how cooking in parchment compares to cooking with foil. Both methods gently steam the food, but you need to be careful not to use acidic ingredients such as tomatoes, lemon or wine when using foil. When acid comes in contact with foil you get a chemical reaction that can result in an unpleasant taste. The food in the foil will cook more quickly, but it won't puff up in that pretty and dramatic way that parchment does.

"En papillote," which is derived from papillon, the French word for butterfly, is easy to put together; it's quick to cook; it's low-fat and healthy; and its presentation is elegant. Try it soon.