Cooking en papillote–in butterfly. It’s a lovely French term for a lovely French technique: wrapping food and flavorings in packets of parchment paper and baking them at high heat for a relatively brief time. The paper is cut into folded shapes like legless butterflies or enormous Valentines, then folded over a mound of raw ingredients and gently crimped around the edges. Then it goes into the oven, where the bits and pieces inside release their juices into fragrant vapor, trapped inside the packet, and delicately steam themselves. The process of cutting and assembling the packets is a bit elaborate, but they steam in a matter of minutes.
Vegetables and poultry take well to this method, I’m told, but every source I look at says the same: en papillote cooking really sings with fish. For sturdy, flaky fillets that can easily go from sashimi to sawdust with a little too much heat, cooking in parchment is a foolproof way to keep them glistening and pearly with juice. Because they’re steaming in their own juices, these fish fillets come out profoundly more flavorful than they went in. Streamlined seasonings stay subtle, not bland; aggressive ingredients get infused into the flesh of the fish.
I tried this for the first time this weekend, for my father’s birthday dinner, with red snapper fillets on a bed of leeks and fennel. I deliberately kept the seasoning simple–lemon, thyme, a splash of wine and a thin ribbon of oil–and was rewarded with a meal that smelled like a restaurant and tasted like the sea. I’ve never been much for mild white fish like snapper, precisely because I thought it had no flavor–but it does, sweet and subtle and easily masked otherwise. The most challenging part of the whole process was gauging doneness; I’m not usually comfortable going on cooking times alone, but in this case it’s more or less required.
I’ve posted an approximate recipe for what I did below, but this is really just a guideline to be traced. Any combination of fish, shellfish, vegetables, aromatics, herbs and spices, stacked together with a gloss of fat and a little extra liquid, will work beautifully in butterfly. Next time I’m thinking maybe salmon, with a puttanesca-type mixture of cherry tomatoes, olives, and capers. Or maybe Asian-style soy-steamed trout. I’ll keep you posted.
Red Snapper en Papillote (serves 4)
Note: If you’d like a visual how-to for putting together the packets, Serious Eats has a great slideshow here.
1 leek, white and light green parts only, halved and thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, trimmed, cored, and thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 red snapper fillets, 6 oz each
8-12 sprigs fresh thyme
4 tsp extra virgin olive oil
2 lemons, thinly sliced
4 tsp fruity white wine (I used a dry riesling)
Special equipment: four 15″ x 20″ pieces of parchment paper
Preheat the oven to 425º F. Fold one of the pieces of parchment paper in half widthwise (hamburger style), then use a pair of scissors to cut it so that you can fold it back open into a heart shape. Repeat with the other pieces of parchment.
Lay one of the parchment hearts on a flat surface. In the center of the right-hand side of the heart, pile 1/4 of the sliced leeks and fennel, making a bed for the fish. Season the vegetables lightly with salt and pepper. Lay one of the red snapper fillets on top of the bed of vegetables. Drizzle the top of the fillet with 1 tsp olive oil, and season it lightly with salt and pepper. Place 2-3 thyme sprigs on top of the fish, then layer over 3-4 lemon slices. Pour 1 tsp white wine over the fish. Fold the empty half of the parchment paper over the top; starting from the top of the heart, fold the edge of the paper over itself, then go halfway down the fold and fold it over again. Continue making folds all the way down to the end, then tuck the loose end back under the packet. Repeat this whole process with the other three parchment hearts and the rest of the ingredients.
Place the packets on a baking sheet, and bake for 10-12 minutes, or until the parchment is puffed and lightly browned. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.