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Fish En Papillote

 Fish, string beans and tomatoes in parchment paper served on couscous
Fish en papillote/esimpraim via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A few days ago I was attending a cookout at a friend's house and they were cooking up a batch of catfish. Now this is a species that is abundant in the Bay, and the state government wants us to eat as much as possible. Since this was a barbecue party, they were cooking the catfish in little tents of tinfoil, and Chef Jerry Pellegrino, this is an approach you wholeheartedly endorse.

Cooking fish, which is delicate, on a grill, which can get very hot, is a challenge. One good technique is to make a little tent for the fish out of tinfoil. You want to be working over medium heat to keep the entire cooking process gentle, because what you are going to do is to actually steam the fish.

The tinfoil tent is nearly identical to a classic French technique called cooking "en papillote.” Instead of tinfoil, you would use cooking parchment (a very useful tool to keep around your kitchen). If you cook your fish in a parchment paper pouch, you gain the added benefit of having a dramatic presentation, achieved by bringing the little pouch intact to the dining table and cutting it open right on the plate. It is sure to release a cloud of aromatic vapor which is a delight.

Regardless of tent material, the theory is the same. We are going to steam the fish, which means we need some source of liquid. To prevent the fish itself from giving up its juiciness, we want to bathe it in things like white wine, cider, beer or citrus juice.

The packet also will contain an assortment of veggies which will steam right alongside the fish. You can also cut off little sprigs of herbs to add to the flavor packet. Thyme, rosemary, dill and oregano are great choices and they will lend their aromatics to the flavor of the fish.

Let's quickly walk through the process. We'll use tinfoil, since it is extremely easy to crimp and seal the edges. Cut out two equal rectangles of tinfoil, one of which will be the bottom. Pat your fish dry, and place it on the tinfoil. Spread soft butter over the top of the fish, and then sprinkle on salt and pepper.

Select your vegetables and then cut them thinly or into julienned strips. Here's a list of candidates for your flavor packet that will give you ideas: spring onions, chives, big cloves of elephant garlic, green beans, carrots, strips of Vidalia onion, peppers of any variety, red, green, yellow, orange, low or medium hot, leeks, fennel, celery, daikon radishes, asparagus, rhubarb...the list goes on and on.

Tuck the veggies along side the fish, arranging them lengthwise. Then you want to add very thin slices of lemon on top the length of the fish. Finally, pour an ounce or two of white wine (or whatever) into the packet. Add the top piece of tinfoil and crimp it all the way around making a nice tight seal, and turn up the edges so the wine won't leak out. And that's it for prep.

Set your grill (or your oven) to a medium heat and place the packets in the middle of the rack. If you're on a grill, not directly over the flame if possible. Cook for about ten minutes. Check for doneness by piercing the foil with a roasting thermometer and poking the fish. You want a temperature of about 145°.

Open the packets and serve immediately, taking care to preserve the wonderful aromatic sauce that has developed "en papillote." And to prolong the aromatic theme, consider serving jasmine rice along side.

One final note: if you are using a thick slice of a dense meaty fish, keep your vegetables thicker, because the added time it takes to steam that big chunk of fish could make skinny cut veggies very soggy.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.