Keep kitchen cool with packet cooking
During the recent heat spell, I began to perspire at the mere thought of cooking dinner. Our wonderful gas stove with its high-intensity burners morphed in my imagination to one of Dante’s seven circles. Going out on the back porch to light the barbecue grill was even less appealing: I would have to stand over the open flame while cleaning the grate. These options led me to reconsider my electric oven.
Modern ovens are well insulated with tight door seals to maintain a consistent cooking temperature. It makes sense that an oven is designed to keep the heat contained, unlike the flaming stovetop. You won’t heat up the kitchen unless you’re frequently opening the door to look at what’s inside. If you select recipes that only require opening the door twice – going in and coming out - baking a meal in the oven might be a cooler way to cook dinner.
To test my theory, I turned to a classic technique known as cooking en papillote: wrapping food into a packet. Various cultures have used all sorts of natural wrappers, such as banana leaves, corn husks or grape leaves. In the convenience-oriented American kitchen you’ll find aluminum foil or parchment paper the most popular cooking wraps. Parchment baking paper is plain white paper that has been treated with acid and coated with silicon to prevent burning or leakage. It’s sold in rolls and found near cling wraps and waxed paper at the grocery.
The tightly wrapped packet seals in moisture, steaming the ingredients without any added fat. When cooking en papillote, choose a combination of quick-cooking, tender foods. Select flaky fish, chicken breast tenderloins, shrimp and moist vegetables such as onions, zucchini and tomato. Although parchment paper, a brown paper bag and foil all make fine wrappers, don’t use aluminum foil if you’ve included any acidic ingredients; this will avoid potential off tastes and discoloration.
Other considerations when layering a packet are the different cooking times of your ingredients. The salmon in the photo was cooked with lemon slices and thyme; it was ready in about 10 minutes. If I’d included potato slices or other root vegetables, I would have needed to briefly parboil them or slice them paper thin in order to have them tender enough when the salmon was ready. In a packet, the goal is to have everything take about the same amount of time to cook, especially if you’ve built an entire meal.
You’ll want to make sure there’s moisture in the packet to create enough steam to cook what you’ve wrapped. The lemon in the salmon dish added lots of juice, but if the salmon were simply dusted with spices, a splash of broth or wine would help produce sufficient steam. This cooking technique amplifies the flavors of your ingredients and creates a lovely cloud of aromas when you open the packet.
The combinations of ingredients are limited only by what you have available. Fold a packet of sweet Asian flavor with chicken, ginger, orange slices, soy sauce and cashews. Add the flavors of the Chesapeake with Old Bay and lemon slices on shrimp or a filet of mahi mahi. Although these are savory dishes, you can also cook dessert en papillote by combining fruit and a sprinkle of cinnamon; the result is like shortcake without the cake. And, not only did those parchment packets keep the kitchen from overheating, cleanup couldn’t be faster.
Salmon en Papillote
1 6-oz salmon filet, skinless
salt & pepper to taste
1 minced shallot
1/4 C diced tomato
6 fresh parsley sprigs
Preheat oven to 425 F. Place a 20-by-15-inch piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Rinse and dry the salmon; season both sides with salt and pepper. Place the salmon in the center of the parchment. Scatter the shallot and tomato across the top of the salmon. Set the parsley sprigs on top. Lift the shorter sides of the parchment and bring the edges up like a tent to meet above the salmon. Fold over several times, almost all the way down, but leaving some room inside. Fold the two other sides, tightly crimping the folds together to seal the packet. Set the packet on the cookie sheet and bake: 8 minutes for a half-inch-thick filet, 10 minutes for a 1-inch-thick filet. To serve, place the closed packet on a dinner plate, slit it open along one side and slide the filet directly onto the plate. Yield: 1 serving
Mediterranean Mahi Mahi
4 mahi mahi filets
1 T olive oil
1 onion, sliced
1 t Balsamic vinegar
1 C diced tomato
1 T drained capers
8 basil leaves
salt & pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400 F. Heat the olive oil in a skillet and sauté the sliced onions until almost golden; stir in Balsamic vinegar and set aside. Cut four pieces of parchment paper 15 inches by 10 inches. Place one filet in the center of each piece of paper. Evenly distribute the sautéed onions over the filets. Repeat with tomatoes and capers. Place two basil leaves on each filet. Lift the shorter sides of the parchment and bring the edges up like a tent to meet above the fish. Fold over several times, almost all the way down, but leaving a slight space inside. Fold the two other sides, tightly crimping the folds together to seal the packets. Set the packets on a cookie sheet and bake 10 to 12 minutes, depending upon the thickness. To serve, place the closed packet on a dinner plate, slit it open along one side and slide the filet directly onto the plate. Yield: 4 servings.
Peaches en Papillote
1 t cinnamon sugar
1 t butter
Preheat oven to 400 F. Cut four pieces of parchment paper about 10 inches by 8 inches; set aside. Cut the peaches into quarters; discard the pits. Place two pieces of peach in the center of each paper. Top each set of peaches with 1/4 t butter and 1/4 t cinnamon sugar. Lift the shorter sides of the parchment and bring the edges up like a tent. Fold over several times, almost all the way down, but leaving a slight space inside. Fold the two other sides, tightly crimping the folds together to seal the packets. Set the packets on a cookie sheet and bake 10 minutes. To serve, open packets over a bowl or use as a topping for pound cake or ice cream. Yield: 2 to 4 servings.