Saturday, May 18, 2013

Halibut En Papillote

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This is one of the few Easters I have ever spent away from home and, food wise, one of the most exciting.  Not only did I not have to cook for a crowd but I was served a dish that reminded me of a technique I haven't seen in years....  En papillote! 

My neighbor and friend is Swedish and, although she has been here for a number of years, she still adheres to a few European traditions such as fish on Easter Sunday instead of the traditional ham we serve here in the States.  Can you imagine halibut for eight en papillote?  Rather than make individual packets which can be a chore for eight, she overlapped the filets and cooked them in one.  I think we settled for 30 minutes and it was perfect.  So good I can't remember the rest of the menu.

En papillote was a technique popular in the fifty's and sixty's, particularly in the bastions of Haute Cuisine like the iconic Le Pavillon.  I remember my grandparents always ate there when they came to New York and if my parents were in town,  they got to tag along.  From there everyone went to El Morocco, although my grandmother always pleaded a headache much to my grandfather's delight.  Unlike her brothers, she was not much of a night clubber preferring to stay at the hotel to rest up for another day of shopping.

En papillote (French for "in parchment"), or al cartoccio in Italian, is a method of cookingin which the food is put into a folded pouch or parcel and then baked. The parcel is typically made from folded parchment paper but other material, such as a paper bag or aluminium foil, may be used. The parcel holds in moisture to steam the food. The moisture may be from the food itself or from an added moisture source, such as water, wine, or stock.

This method is most often used to cook fish or vegetables, but lamb and poultry can also be cooked en papillote. Choice of herbs, seasonings and spices depend on the particular recipe being prepared.

The pouch should be sealed with careful folding.

Although restaurants know how much panache en papillote brings to a dish, there is an additional beauty, one appreciated by too few home cooks: it is fast and uncomplicated in its execution, once you get the knack and understand the principles that underlie the method.

When food is sealed in paper, it cooks in its own juices. It is a more flavorful approach than ordinary steaming and less restrictive than cooking in a hermetically sealed pot. There is no water beneath and no lid above. Ingredients cook quickly because they are surrounded by moist heat. As the package is heated, the air inside expands, and the flavors of the ingredients are swept into it, swirling and mingling, with no escape. The ingredients are, in a sense, cooked with flavored air and form a sauce purely of their own essence.

Yesterday when I went to Costco I found fresh halibut, much to my delight.  I couldn't wait to get home and start on my little pouches.   The end result was memorable, better than I remembered.  

Here is what I did:

You will need parchment paper to make the pouches.  Don't be a sissy, parchment is more elegant than tinfoil and it's a cinch to do the pouches.  Watch this.

Cut the fish in half so you can layer the pieces one on top of the other. Figure on 1/2 lbs per person. For this recipe I used about 3/4 lbs halibut and it was too much to finish (although I did).  The Sous Chef got a bite and she almost bit my hand off.

Take 1 lemon and slice it thin.  Also thinly slice some red and yellow peppers. A TB of minced shallots might be good too!

Lay your paper out as instructed.  Sprinkle some olive oil.  Lay a piece of the fish on the paper.  Salt and pepper. Cover it with overlapping lemon slices and a spring of tarragon.

 Lay the other half of the fish on top. Salt and pepper.  More overlapping slices of lemon and top with the peppers.

 Lay a spring of tarragon (or two) on top and sprinkle with more olive oil.  Add about 2 TB. dry Vermouth or white wine.  If you are not watching your weight you might add a tad of sliced butter.  Fold the pouch as instructed.

Cook at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes.  Time will depend on the amount of fish you are cooking.  When you start smelling the fish it's done!

The possibilities are endless.  I am not too excited about cooking meat or poultry en papillote but fish? is the best.  My halibut tasted as if it had come out of the water just that afternoon!  I am going to dig into some of my old French cookbooks and get more ideas.  En I come!  Oh, and I pans to clean. I was truly in heaven! Thanks dear Karin.


  1. Did you know that in the frozen food section at Walmart, there is a line of food frozen in parchment bags? Really very good entrees,although the veggies are a tiny bit repetitious. Your halibut looks lovely, and I don't even like fish. Susan

    1. No, I have never seen anything frozen in bags but it sounds like a great idea. I will try freezing one when I make another recipe and will let you know.

  2. I haven't cooked anything in en papillote in a very long time. Too long in fact. It is a very healthy and delicious way to prepare fish. Thanks for sharing the story of your grandparents. Sounds like they lead a very exciting life. Nightclubs in those days provided spectacular & exciting entertainment.

    1. Sam it was better than I remember. I bet you could come up with something exciting. Ah nightclubs...better than going to the movies no?

  3. After all these years, I have never once attempted cooking en papillote but this post has convinced me
    to make a stab at it. And I agree that fish would lend itself to the technique better than poultry or red meats!

  4. Toby,

    I knew I would hear from you...this is right up your alley. If you can, get some halibut. It's in season. I got mine for $16 a lbs vs $38 earlier in the year. Fresh snapper or mahi would be good too. Of course sole. It was truly spectacular. Nothing to it. Dinner was on the table in less than half an hour.

  5. Your halibut en papillote looks heavenly. We recently did the same thing with salmon. The fish is so moist and flavorful. Great photos.


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