There is certainly something about spring which calls for gentle cooking methods. And one of the gentlest was invented by the French. It involves cooking food in paper, believe it or not, better known as cooking "en papilotte." And Chef Jerry Pellegrino says this is a pretty unique way to prepare food.
The key to cooking with paper, is of course the paper. In this case we're talking about cooking parchment paper. This is grease-resistant, heat-resistant paper that has been specially treated for kitchen use. Not only can you cook with it en papilotte, it is perfect for lining cake pans. Cooking parchment is readily available in most grocery stores, or you can order it on-line. A 50 square foot roll costs about $12. If you don't want to go that route, aluminum foil works just as well.
Cooking en papilotte is a variation of cooking with steam. The idea is to put your protein, your vegetables, your spices and seasonings all in one pouch, add little liquid such as white wine, and put it in an oven or on the grill. (If you're using a grill, go gentle on it. Cook the paper pouch away from the flame.)
The liquid will heat up and gently steam the food, preserving its inherent flavor, while allowing the various flavors to mix and mingle. You not only cook the food to perfection, but you create a sauce as well.
Classic recipes mention fish and shellfish most often, and that makes perfect sense. But don't overlook possibilities with chicken breast or thin veal scallops.
(Al doesn't think steak would work real well, unless you slice it very thin and go for a "carpaccio" approach.)
Al uses wine 9 times out of 10 for steaming liquid, but chicken or vegetable stock work very well, as do soy sauce or olive oil. Whatever you choose, you don't really need a lot. Adding a few pats of butter can really enrich your sauce, so don't hesitate. And if you have learned how to make herbed butters, you're way ahead of the game.
In choosing vegetables, go for tender. Onions, shallots, green beans, broccoli, summer squash, peppers and mushrooms are all naturals. You can use harder veggies like carrots, winter squash and potatoes if you slice them up very thin. Thus matchstick carrots or thin disks of potato would do nicely. Blanching the hard veggies in boiling water also helps.
Other than salt and pepper you are pretty much free to use just about anything in your spice rack or herb garden.
For some reason most recipes want you to cut a big circle out of the parchment, fold it in half, and then trim one end to make a heart shape. Al doesn't know what the advantage is, but they all talk about it. Regardless, once you get your ingredients into the packet, start at one end, and fold the edges repeatedly as you work your way around the perimeter. You want a good tight seal.
Cook in a moderate oven, say 350° to 400°. When the packet puffs up, it is safe to assume that the food is cooked, about 30 minutes.
AL'S HAKE AND HERBS EN PAPILOTTE
2 8 ounce hake filets
8 asparagus sliced lengthwise
1 thin slice of white onion, cut in half and pulled apart
1/2 large carrot, julienne slices, blanched
4 stalks of green onion, sliced lengthwise
6 small white potatoes, quartered and blanched
4 pats of butter
4 thin slices of lemon
Herbes de Provence
salt and pepper
2 tbs dry white wine
2 large squares of cooking parchment paper
1. Fold each sheet of parchment in half, then trim to make a semi-circular shape
(which will result in a full circle when unfolded.)
2. Lay one seasoned hake filet near the center line of the parchment. Place the vegetables next to it, lengthwise. Scatter them out to avoid lumping them together.
3. Sprinkle Herbes de Provence on the filet, then put two pats of butter on each. Cover the butter with slices of lemon.
4. Fold the empty parchment half over the loaded half, and working from one end,
begin folding the edges one inch at a time. Get each fold as tight as possible.
5. When you have about two or three inches left to fold, open the pouch up wide enough to allow you to pour the wine into the pouch. Finish crimping the edges, and give the two ends an extra twist. Repeat with the second pouch.
6. Place the two pouches on a cookie sheet with sides, and place in a pre-heated
400° oven. Bake for about 30 minutes.
7. To serve, place the pouch on a dinner plate and cut it open. You can leave the food in the pouch or slide it onto the plate.