My kitchen stove is one of those gorgeous 1950s Wedgewoods with serious pilot lights that keep the whole room pretty close to incubator temperature all year round. If I'm going to turn on one of the ovens in the heat of summer, I need four good reasons: What I'm putting in it has to be quick and it has to be easy. And what I take out has to be radically transformed, with no slaving over a hot sink afterward.
Not that I have a weakness for vintage, but to me the best solution is actually one of the most traditional in the French kitchen: cooking en papillote. Anything sealed in baking parchment with a little liquid will emerge as something almost magical in less than 20 minutes, less time than it would take on a grill if I owned one. And it's about as close to carefree as you can get without breaking open a package of paper plates. There are no pots or pans or even baking dishes to scrub; you can just wipe a cookie sheet off and call it a night (some of us Luddites do not have dishwashers).
Cooking en papillote is a great idea no matter what page is open on the calendar, but it suits summertime surprisingly well. Typically, it's most often used to cook fish: With just a little butter or oil for moisture and a few herbs for perfume, it's a foolproof path to juicy fillets.
But it's even better applied to foods that need barely enough exposure to heat to qualify as cooked, like those June-July specials of sweet scallops and corn off the cob, or to peaches and other ripe fruits that need a little something extra to qualify as dessert.
Baking in paper last went through a big revival in the '80s, when spa "cuisine" was all the rage, which in my mind took half its French appeal away. Undeniably, it's the next-best thing to steaming for most ingredients, because it imparts flavor where fat would normally have to do the heavy lifting. But there are far better imperatives for indulging. This is a technique that stands on its own.
Nothing could be easier, as long as you have a roll of parchment paper (still easier to find than that other artifact, kitchen twine) and cut it into the proper shape. "Papillote" is derived from the word for butterfly, which is a hint of how to proceed: You fold a long sheet in half crosswise and scissor out butterfly wings — a piece that looks like half a heart or, when you unfold it, a valentine. As the food inside cooks, the fat top will puff perfectly while the skinny end captures the juices.
Grilling is just as simple and direct, but cooking en papillote is far more dramatic. The difference is clear at the table: As you slit open individual puffed packets of parchment with a liquid bubbling inside, a nice cloud of aromatic steam escapes.
Getting it right You could use aluminum foil and get a decent dinner or dessert. But unlike paper, which is permeable, foil is airtight. Anything in it will be more steamed than coddled. Overcooking to mushiness is also a risk. Parchment not only works better, it also looks better.
Foil does have one advantage, though: You can toss it on the grill. Anyone who survived Girl Scouts in the '60s knows that whatever you wrap tightly and toss into coals will eventually turn into dinner, whether hot dogs, hamburger, trout, potatoes or corn. The trade-off, though, is mushier texture and less profound, overt flavors.
Parchment is relatively delicate but strong enough to enfold anything from ripe blueberries to slabs of halibut with no leaks. Once it's coated with a little butter or olive oil, the paper becomes impregnable for cooking but still pervious to exchanges of flavor in the heat of the oven. As the paper puffs, which foil will not do, it creates an intensely concentrated little lab for the ingredients it captures. Tastes like tomato, basil, olive and garlic come together with scallops more gently but assertively than they would in a sauté pan, for which shellfish and sauce would have to be handled separately (while, I might point out, dirtying more dishes).
You can fold myriad proteins and vegetables and fruits into parchment: chicken breasts, salmon steaks, shrimp; mushrooms, zucchini, peas; peaches or apricots or even rhubarb. The trick is to balance the solids and the liquids; you need just enough of the latter to keep the former from turning to jerky but not so much that you make soup. Seasoning is also key because the flavors are relatively delicate; salt and pepper are not to be forgotten.
The parchment needs to be sealed correctly too. I just fold the edges over to crimp them so the liquids stay where they belong and the paper puffs. A foot-long sheet should be about the right size to fit the food on the fat section and leave enough space for puffing. If you use white parchment, it will turn a slightly brown tone in the oven, which makes the package even more appealing.
The other balancing act is timing. This is a technique for gamblers; you get no second chance once you declare it done. Luckily, the amount of moisture makes this pretty much as low-risk as playing a video game rather than blackjack; if something is overcooked, the liquid will salvage it. Chances of undercooking are slim; most foods cooked this way can also be eaten raw.
Oven temperature is key, though. Like a soufflé, papillote needs a fast, strong burst to inflate. A setting of 350 degrees will yield packets as flat as a cake. At least 450 degrees will provide jet propulsion.
Although the very rigid French get most of the credit for cooking en papillote, the Italians are just as much puff masters from way back. They call the technique cartoccio, and they use it most famously with a whole snapper paired with an array of shellfish in the shell. Having tried it a couple of times, I think it's living too dangerously. You open it, you own it if it's not quite cooked.
Beyond that, one of the beauties of serving food en papillote is that it's simply designed to be done in individual portions. Each is like a gift on every plate, with its own little show in the unfolding.
Summer fruit en papillote
Total time: 20 minutes
Note: If you want a sweeter, more liquid sauce, add half a cup of raspberries or blackberries. Leave some space between the fruit and the crimped edge to allow the packet to puff up.
4 tablespoons melted butter plus extra for the parchment
4 medium peaches or 6 apricots, ripe but firm and sliced
1 cup blueberries
4 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/4teaspoon ground cloves
1/4teaspoon ground allspice
Ice cream or whipped cream (optional)
1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Cut 4 sheets of baking parchment into 15- by 12-inch pieces. Fold each in half and cut into the shape of half a heart. Unfold to reveal a whole heart and brush butter onto one side of each sheet along the fold in the middle where the fruit will be placed. Set aside.
2. Combine the remaining butter, the peaches or apricots, blueberries, sugar, cloves, allspice, cinnamon and ginger in bowl and toss to mix well.
3. Divide the fruit mixture among the four parchment hearts, placing fruit along the fold on one side of the heart. Fold the sheets over and crimp the edges tightly to seal completely. Lay the packets on a baking sheet.
3. Bake until the parchment packets puff up and the fruit gives off juices, about 10 minutes. Transfer each packet to a plate and slit open with a sharp knife. Top with ice cream or whipped cream if desired.
Each serving (without ice cream or whipped cream): 217 calories; 1 gram protein; 30 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 12 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 31 mg. cholesterol; 10 mg. sodium.
Scallops niçoise en papillote
Total time: 25 minutes
Note: Leave some space between the scallops and the crimped edge to allow the packet to puff up.
4 teaspoons olive oil plus extra for parchment
4 medium ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4cup niçoise olives, pitted and chopped
Coarse sea salt and black pepper to taste
16 fresh basil leaves, washed and dried
16 sea scallops (about
1 1/3 pounds)
1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Cut out 4 sheets of parchment paper measuring 15 by 12 inches. Fold in half and cut into the shape of half a heart. Brush each sheet lightly with oil along the fold on one side of the heart. Set aside.
2. Drain the tomatoes well to remove as much liquid as possible. Combine with the garlic and olives and season with salt and pepper to taste.
3. Divide the mixture among the sheets of parchment, placing the mixture along the fold on one side of the heart. Place 2 basil leaves on top of each mound of tomatoes followed by 4 scallops. Drizzle 1 teaspoon of olive oil on each and season with salt and pepper. Divide the remaining basil leaves among the mounds.
4. Fold one side of the parchment packets over and crimp the edges tightly to seal completely. Place the packets on a baking sheet.
5. Bake until the packets puff up and the contents bubble, about 15 minutes. Transfer the packets to serving plates and slit each open with a sharp knife. Serve immediately.
Each serving: 158 calories; 14 grams protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 8 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 24 mg. cholesterol; 225 mg. sodium.
Shiitakes and corn en papillote
Total time: 30 minutes
Note: The mounded mushroom mixture will seem like a lot per person but will shrink during baking. Leave some space between the mushrooms and the crimped edge to allow room for the packet to puff up.
2 large ears fresh corn, kernels removed
3/4pound shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, wiped clean and cut into 3/4-inch dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
3/4 cup dry white wine
3/4cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Cut 4 sheets of baking parchment into 15- by 12-inch pieces. Fold each piece in half and cut into the shape of half a heart. Open to reveal a whole heart and brush each sheet lightly with olive oil along the fold in the middle. Set aside.
2. Combine the corn kernels, mushrooms, garlic, thyme, wine and cream in large bowl and toss to mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
3. Divide the mixture among the parchment sheets, mounding along the fold on one side of the heart. Fold the parchment over and tightly crimp the edges to seal completely. Transfer to a baking sheet.
3. Bake 30 minutes. Transfer to serving plates and slit open just before serving. Serve immediately.
Each serving: 281 calories; 5 grams protein; 21 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 17 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 61 mg. cholesterol; 49 mg. sodium.