Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Fish en papillote

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 Fish en papillote
From France through New Orleans, this simple, healthy cooking method is worth a try ... even if you substitute foil for the traditional parchment envelope.
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Fish en papillote

Maybe I'm just getting old and cranky, but I'm just about over the cable television Food Network. I loved it when it first came to town, with serious chefs like Ming Tsai and Mario Batali and seriously offbeat shows like the original dubbed-in-English version of the wacky Japanese Iron Chef.

As time went by, though, the network shed one more serious cooking show after another. I wish I didn't have to use terms like "dumbed down," but it's hard not to notice that a lot of the network's programs and personalities seem to be recruited from "American Idol." No thanks, not for me.

But as long as Food Network keeps on broadcasting Alton Brown's "Good Eats," it won't lose me entirely. Of all the programs on cable television's 500 channels with nothing much to watch, this is the one show that I faithfully record, to make sure I don't miss an episode.

As I wrote in a review years ago - nothing much has changed - the host of "Good Eats" is "Lovably goofy ... passionate about food and food science. This half-hour program may sometimes veer toward the bizarre, but I love the way Brown focuses on a specific ingredient in each program and covers it in loving detail, from historical and cultural background to recipes. This is food education at its best, made palatable but never 'dumbed down.'"

It's surprising how often I'll watch "Good Eats" and be inspired to try something I see. The other day, for instance, on an episode titled "The Pouch Principle," he took on cooking en papillote. Fish (and other good things) wrapped with veggies and aromatic flavors cooked in their own vapors by steaming in a parchment envelope!

This brought warm memories of old New Orleans and the signature dish pompano en papillote flooding back. It's good, it's easy, and it's incredibly healthy, as you can cook with very little oil for flavoring or, if you like, no fat at all.

The basic procedure is very simple indeed: Place a portion of fish - or poultry, meat, even tofu should work - on a bed of aromatic vegetables like onion, garlic, fennel or you name it, and a selection of compatible aromatics, from citrus slices to spices and herbs. Wrap it up in a neat envelope of parchment paper (or, if you like, aluminum foil) and pop it in a hot oven until the contents cook through in their own flavorful steam. Take it out, rip it open and serve ... what could be easier?

You can look up Alton's recipes from this episode on the Food Network Website at this long link:

Or, if you're a Food Network subscriber, "The Pouch Principle" will air again Monday, Jan. 28, at 11 p.m. US Eastern time, and Tuesday, Jan. 29, at 2 a.m. EST.

Here's the version I came up with after watching the program. I used a chunk of mahi mahi because it had come in fresh that morning, but you could substitute just about any fish that suits you.

I suggest looking for (or cutting) a piece of fairly even thickness throughout, and not overly thick. This was a fairly good-size chunk, about 1 1/2 inches at the thickest point, and it took surprisingly long to cook. A full 30 minutes at 425F, wrapped in foil, wasn't really long enough, and I ended up finishing it off in the microwave. Please don't tell anyone about this. Next time, if I have a piece that thick, I'll butterfly it by slicing it horizontally almost all the way through and opening it like a book.


(Serves two)

1/2 sweet onion, enough to make about 1/2 cup (120g) sliced
1-2 cloves garlic, to make 1 tablespoon (15g) minced
Fresh ginger root, to make 1 tablespoon minced
Dried red-pepper flakes
1 lemon, preferably a Meyer lemon
1 lime
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon (5ml) roasted peanut oil
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
Dash hot sauce
12-16 ounce boneless fillet of mahi mahi or other firm, mild fish
Black pepper
Several sprigs parsley


1. Preheat oven to 425F (220C).

2. Peel the onion and cut it into julienne slices. Peel and mince the garlic and ginger root. Put these vegetables together in a small bowl and season with a dash of dried red-pepper flakes to taste.

3. Cut about half of the lemon and lime into thin slices, and squeeze the rest, which should yield about 1/4 cup of juice. Put the juice in a cup and whisk in the soy sauce, peanut and sesame oil and hot sauce to taste.

4. Rinse the fish, which should be scrupulously fresh, and pat it dry. As noted, if the fish is more than about 3/4 inch thick, it may be better to butterfly it or cut it horizontally into two thinner slices.

5. Spread out a large piece of aluminum foil or parchment paper (well over twice the size of the fish) and spread the raw sliced onions toward one side, spreading them out in a pile about the same size as the fish. Sprinkle about half of the minced garlic-ginger mix on the onions, and put the fish on top, skin-side down. Season the fish with salt and freshly ground black pepper, taking care not to over-salt. (Remember, the soy sauce will also add salt to the dish.) Sprinkle the rest of the garlic and ginger on top of the fish, neatly line up the lemon and lime slices on top, and pour on the liquid mix. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley, and fold the parchment paper over it all to make a tight envelope, folding over the edges to make the packet fairly airtight. (Alton staples the edges, a modern idea but not a bad one.)

6. Put the package on an ovenproof dish and put it in the preheated oven to bake for at least 30 minutes. Remove, open the paper (watch out for escaping steam). Enjoy the wonderful aromas, and enjoy the fish, with crusty bread or rice.

WINE MATCH: I suggest a reasonably full-bodied white wine. The offbeat Charles Smith 2006 "Holy Cow" Columbia Valley Chardonnay from Washington State was fine.

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