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 saute 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 souffle, 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.