We’re thrilled to welcome Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion, authors of two of our favorite family cookbooks, Keepers and their recent release, The Dinner Plan, who are sharing tips, ideas, and recipes to make life as the family cook easier. Also be sure to check out their ideas for a new way to serve family dinner, how to turn salad into dinner, and easy condiments that can save dinner.
Whether for a quick weeknight dinner or an elegant dinner party, we are big fans of cooking en papillote, which is fancy for in a parchment paper packet, although we usually use foil because it’s always on hand and is easier to seal. This classic cooking technique has so many things going for it that we included en papillote recipes in both Keepers and The Dinner Plan.
Not only is it quick, simple, and relatively mess-free, but you can also assemble the packets a couple of hours ahead of time, then store them in the refrigerator until it’s time to cook. You can bake them all at once or one-by-one, perhaps in a toaster oven, for those nights when family members come home at different times. It’s also a healthful way to cook because, generally speaking, very little fat, if any, is needed for really tasty results.
Bonus: everyone gets a “present” at the table, and they’ll be extra thankful when they open the package and the heady aroma wafts out.
How to cook en papillote
The general formula for cooking en papillote is protein + liquid + flavorings + vegetables (optional). Seal them in foil — taking care not to poke a hole, which would cause you to lose the juices that produce the steam that cooks the food and keeps it moist — then bake at 425°F for about 10 to 25 minutes, depending on the type of protein and how thick it is.
Check one packet on the early side, but don’t stress too much about overcooking your protein. This is a very gentle method of cooking, so there’s a lot of wiggle room. We like to serve the packets with crusty bread, rice, or grains. The latter are particularly good scooped into the open pouch so that they can soak up the flavorful juices.
Note: if you are using acidic ingredients, such as wine or diced tomatoes, switch to parchment paper because they may react with the foil, creating a funny taste and/or eating holes through it. For a visual on how to seal a parchment package, search “folding parchment cooking” on the Internet. (Gotta love the web.)
Ingredients that work well en papillote
Once you learn the basic technique, experiment with different ingredients. Fish fillets such as salmon, halibut, and cod are ideal for cooking en papillote, but you can also use boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thick slices of tofu. Liquids can include white wine, vermouth, olive oil, stock, citrus juice, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Additional flavoring choices include ginger, lemongrass, garlic, capers, herbs, citrus zest, and spices, such as cumin, pepper flakes, and coriander.
Vegetables are optional, but we usually include at least one. Try leeks, peas, snow peas, baby bok choy, tomatoes, corn, or mushrooms. Just be sure to cut the vegetables small enough, or blanch them first, so that they cook through with only a gentle steam.
Our recipe for Tex-Mex Salmon in Foil from The Dinner Plan is a great introduction to cooking en papillote and one of the few recipes in the book that hits every category: Make-Ahead, Staggered, One-Dish, Pantry, and Extra-Fast. So, yeah, it will work with any kind of schedule. Experiment from here and let us know what you come up with!
Tex-Mex Salmon in Foil
From The Dinner Plan
This “in foil” recipe, an ode to the flavors of the Southwest, has the added benefit of being a one-dish meal, although you can also serve it over rice or wrapped in some warm tortillas. There’s no need to dirty a mixing bowl if you have a quart-size measuring cup: Use it to measure the beans, corn, onions, and tomatoes on top of each other, then stir in the jalapeño, cumin, oil, and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Divide the mixture among the foil sheets and proceed with the rest of the recipe. Grate the lime zest right over the fillets. Substitute cayenne pepper or hot sauce to taste if you don’t have a jalapeño in your pantry.
1 cup (185 g) canned black beans, drained, rinsed, and patted dry
1 cup (130 g) fresh or thawed frozen corn
1/3 cup (40 g) finely chopped red or yellow onion
1 heaping cup (180 g) cherry tomatoes, halved
1 small jalapeño, seeded and minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
Four 6-ounce (170-g) skinless salmon fillets, about 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick, patted dry
Grated zest of 1 lime
Handful of fresh cilantro, chopped (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C), with a rack in the middle position. Lay four pieces of foil, about 18 by 15 inches (46 by 38 cm) each, on the counter. In a medium bowl (or quart/liter-size measuring cup; see headnote), combine the beans, corn, onions, tomatoes, jalapeños, cumin, and oil. Season generously with salt and pepper, then stir together. Divide the mixture among the pieces of foil, spooning it in the center in the general shape of the fillets.
2. Season the fillets with salt and pepper, then put one on top of each bean mixture skinned-side down. Sprinkle each fillet with one-fourth of the lime zest, then bring up the sides of the foil to create a bowl. Leaving an air pocket over the salmon, fold together the edges of the foil along the top and both sides, tightly sealing.*
3. Put the packets on a sheet pan and bake until the salmon is almost cooked through, 12 to 18 minutes. (Test one fillet on the earlier side and add more cooking time, if needed.) Transfer the packets to plates, allowing people to open them at the table, and serve with lime wedges and cilantro, if you like.
Make-Ahead: Prepare to * without preheating the oven, then keep the sealed packets on a plate in the refrigerator for up to 1 day. Let them sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes before baking.
Staggered: Pop each foil packet in the oven (or toaster oven) as needed.
Read more from Kathy and Caroline at their site, KeepersCooks.com and be sure to pick up a copy of The Dinner Plan at your local indie bookstore or our Amazon affiliate to get the rest of the recipes mentioned here. You can also find Kathy and Caroline on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Salmon photo by Maura McEvoy from The Dinner Plan by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion, published by ABRAMS c 2017