By Sara Moulton
---- — Poisson en papillote is the elegant-sounding name of a staple recipe of classic French cuisine. Translated into English, it becomes the much less elegant-sounding “fish in a bag.” By any name, however, this method of baking fish is a smash.
Typically, the fish is combined with vegetables and herbs, some butter or oil, and often some wine. All of this is wrapped up in a piece of kitchen parchment and baked. The parchment keeps the flavor and moisture trapped inside during cooking, allowing the juices from the fish and the other ingredients to mingle and become a wonderful sauce.
And because the parchment is stick-resistant, the recipe requires very little fat. The small amount of oil in this recipe is there for taste and texture only.
In this recipe, the relatively few ingredients I’ve added to the salmon are in the service of the sauce. But let’s say you wanted to make a whole meal in a bag, sort of like a high-toned TV dinner. In that case, you could add some substantial vegetables, for example, sauteed mushrooms, steamed cooked potato cubes, blanched broccoli or carrots.
If you do add vegetables, they’ll need to be precooked. The denser vegetables — such as carrots and broccoli — simply won’t have time to get tender during the 10 to 12 minutes of cooking needed by the salmon. Similarly, if wetter veggies — such as mushrooms and spinach — aren’t precooked, they’ll release too much liquid in the packet and water down the sauce.
The only tricky part about cooking en papillote is that you can’t see when the fish is done. If you slice open the bag, you risk losing some of the delicious sauce that’s coming together. My solution is to start with the basic rule of baking fish: In a 400-degree oven, give it 10 minutes of cooking time for every inch of thickness.
When I’m ready to test whether the fish is done, I stick a very sharp thin knife right through the parchment and down through the fish. No or little resistance? The fish is done. Significant resistance? Bake it for a few more minutes. And by the way, this test works well regardless of how you cook the fish.
Kitchen parchment — or even pre-made parchment paper bags — is widely available in the foil and plastic wrap aisle. And by the way, it’s also great for lining baking sheets when making cookies.
This recipe includes instructions on how to fold the paper to make a bag yourself, but if you can find the pre-made ones, grab them. I experimented with a pre-made bag while testing this recipe and discovered that it worked perfectly well. You just layer all the ingredients in the bag, fold the bottom under to seal the package and bake away.
The beauty of this dish, besides its deliciousness, is that it requires very little preparation and cooks in no time at all. I invite you to take this concept and run with it, making new recipes based on whichever fish and vegetables are in season. And by the way, much as I love wild salmon, it isn’t always in season. So check for sustainably raised farmed salmon, fresh or frozen.
SALMON BAKED IN A BAG WITH CITRUS, OLIVES AND CHILIES
Start to finish: 35 minutes
1 small orange
Four skinless, 6-ounce, center-cut salmon fillet pieces
1/4 cup chopped fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup pitted and chopped olives, preferably oil-cured
1/2 serrano chili, thinly sliced crosswise
Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
Cut the orange and lemon in half crosswise. Thinly slice half of the orange and half of the lemon into thin slices. Juice the remaining halves of both fruits.
Set a 24-inch-long sheet of kitchen parchment on a baking sheet. Fold the sheet in half across the short side, then open the folded parchment (like a book), leaving half of it on the baking sheet.
Arrange about half of the orange and lemon slices in a single layer in the center of the parchment on the baking sheet.
Sprinkle half the rosemary over the citrus slices. Set the salmon over the rosemary, then sprinkle with salt, the citrus juices and oil. Top each piece of salmon with a quarter of the remaining rosemary and citrus slices.
Fold the second half of the parchment over the fish, then crimp and fold the edges together to create a sealed packet. Bake — on the sheet pan — on the oven’s middle shelf for 10 to 12 minutes, or until just cooked through (stick a paring knife through the parchment and salmon; it should move easily through the fish if done).
Cut open the parchment, discard the citrus slices from the top of the salmon, then place each piece on a serving plate. Spoon some of the olives, chilies, rosemary and juices over each piece.
Nutrition information per serving: 440 calories; 260 calories from fat (59 percent of total calories); 29 g fat (5 g saturated, 0 g trans fats); 100 mg cholesterol; 9 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 35 g protein; 490 mg sodium.