In 1840 Antoine Alciatore established Antoine’s Restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans. A bastion of traditional French Creole cuisine, and still thriving to this day, Antoine’s has the distinction of being the oldest family run restaurant in the United States. Antoine’s is first and foremost known for its superior food, but also its patronage by famous dignitaries and celebrities, New Orleans memorabilia, and an extensive wine list. But, returning to the food, it is not solely the quality that sets them apart, but their inventiveness. Antoine’s has been the birthplace of many classic dishes such as Oysters Rockefeller, Eggs Sardou, Pigeonneaux Paradis, and for the purposes of our present discussion, Pompano en Papillote. Pompano, a saltwater fish of the Jack family, is considered by many to be America’s finest fish. It has a succulent, fine-textured and delicatly tasting flesh, and an equally juicy price tag to boot.
En papillote is a method of cooking, most specifically a variant of steaming, whereby food is encased in parchment paper and placed in an oven. Herbs, vegetables, and some kind of fluid, such as a sauce, wine, stock, etc., is included. Thus, the natural juices of the food in conjunction with the added fluids, produce steam which cooks the food within its encapsulated parchment pouch. The intermingling of the steam and the various ingredients produces a wonderful hegemony of flavor.
Steaming is a wet heat cooking method whereby heat is transferred to the food via conduction, (from direct contact with the water vapor), and convection, (from the upward motion of the water vapor). Steaming is a highly effective mode of transferring energy yet gentle at the same time. Thus, it is ideal for more delicate meats and vegetables which would be damaged by the greater agitation and disruptive force of boiling or simmering water. Moreover, steaming doesn’t leach away nutrients like immersion methods do since the food is not surrounded by roiling liquid. Steaming, be it en papillote or not, is also a low-fat method of cooking that nevertheless produces tender and delicate results.
Fish is the quintessential en papilllote choice but as stated above, other delicate meats, such as shellfish or chicken, can be employed as well. Because of the brief cooking duration avoid thick cuts of meat. Fillets of fish or chicken breasts under an inch are the best option. However, fillets that are too thin can start to disintegrate. Non-oily white fleshed fish worked best: snapper, sole, flounder, tilapia, etc. For very thick pieces of meat, sear on each side in a pan before being placed in the pouch to steam. Or just butterfly them and skip the sauté pan. Vegetables should be finely julienned or sliced very thin so they finish cooking simultaneously.
Traditionally a large heart shaped piece of parchment paper is employed, but a rectangle will suffice. The size of course depends on the amount of food. Use your judgment and err on the large side since it's easier to trim than come up short. If you don’t have or can’t find parchment paper, aluminum foil will also work. Place the main item in the center, then sprinkle the vegetables, herbs, seasonings, etc. over it. Next, fold the paper/foil in half over the food and begin folding and crimping the edge all the way around to create a tight seal. Just before you have completely encased the food, pour the liquid into the pouch and then perform the final crimp. Place the packet on an oiled baking sheet or a stainless steel platter and place in a preheated oven according to your recipe's instructions. Although it is a little tricky to determine doneness precisely, if using parchment, when the pouch has fully puffed and is browning, it should be done. Again, follow your particular recipe and adjust accordingly in future trials.
Due to my unyielding fealty to logic, I must confess that cooking your food in parchment paper is not absolutely necessary. Identical results can be produced with any standard cooking vessel with a snug fitting lid. A primary motivation for en papillote’s creation and continued use is culinary pageantry. The dish was originally intended for a Brazilian balloonist at a banquet in his honor. As the food steams, the parchment paper inflates. The impressive “balloon” of parchment encased food is then immediately served to the guests. The climatic finish occurs when each diner pops his balloon and expels the steam and enticing aromas. You can decide for yourself whether to go the parchment route or whether you think en papillote is just, I can’t resist, full of hot air, and opt for a covered baking dish.
• 2 (8-oz), red snapper fillets
• Salt and pepper to taste
• Olive oil, as needed
• 1 small onion, thinly sliced
• 1 small carrot, finely julienned
• 1 celery stick, finely julienned
• Butter, cubed, to taste
• Chopped parsley, as needed
• Lemon juice, to taste
• 4 oz. chicken or fish broth*
• 1 oz. dry white wine
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Season the fillets with salt and pepper. Cut the parchment paper into a heart shape large enough to hold the fish and vegetables. Lightly brush the inside of the paper with oil. Place the fish on one side of the paper. Place the vegetables on top of the fish. Dab with little cubes of butter, sprinkle with parsley and a few squirts of lemon and season with a little extra salt and pepper. Begin folding and crimping the paper to make a nicely sealed edge. Just before making the final seal, leave enough room to pour the broth and wine into the packet. Finish the seal and place on an oiled baking sheet. Place baking sheet in the oven for 10-12 minutes depending on the thickness of the fillets.
* The traditional fluid for fish en papillote is veloute, a white chicken or fish stock thickened with roux, (a cooked mixture of butter and flour).
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