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March 13, 2009 at 4:40 PM

Baking fish “en papillote” — So easy, and elegant!

Back in the ’80’s I worked at a the Marx Bros. Cafe in Alaska, where one of the most popular dishes was “salmon en papillote.” The salmon filet was layered over a ridiculously rich scallion-laced cream sauce thickened with egg yolks, enveloped in parchment paper and baked in a 450-degree oven till the paper puffed up like old-fashioned Jiffy Pop:

Am I crazy, or is that “witch” Ruth Buzzi?

Prepared in advance, that salmon en papillote is the perfect dish for company (so long as they’re not on a diet). Why? Well, besides its glamorousity-quotient, the host or hostess can sip a glass of wine, chat with friends and nibble cocktail peanuts while dinner’s cooking — which is one of the reasons I “stole” the recipe from my friend Jack Amon, the Marx Bros. Cafe’s chef-proprietor, and have long since adopted it as my own.

Depending on what’s in season — or what’s on sale — I’ll substitute other finfish for the salmon. But wild Alaska king salmon with its luscious fat content is the epitome of parchment-baked fish for me. You can use whatever floats your boat. Ling cod, say, or sole, or halibut — which I found on sale this week at QFC:

Halibut en papillote with Manila clams and shrimp

For years, I’d prepare my parchment-steamed fish with Jack’s Frenchified sauce (see his recipe for a crowd, below), but these days, I do my own thing. I almost always add shellfish (a shrimp or scallop, a couple of clams or mussels). Sometimes I’ll pair the fish with Asian ingredients (maybe ginger, shiitakes, a hit of soy or Chinese black bean sauce). I frequently look toward the Mediterranean for inspiration (tomato, olives, capers, a splash of good olive oil). You can make things really simple and use a big dollop of Trader Joe’s spicy tomato chutney (which I adore), or your favorite salsa. Dieting? Lay the fish over julienned vegetables (carrots, fennel, leeks, whatever) or simply add some fresh herbs, a shot of dry white wine and a sprinkling of salt and pepper.

You don’t even have to have parchment paper on hand to make fish en papillote: aluminum foil works too. But trust me, the parchment makes a better visual impression. Plus, I’m convinced it steams the fish more gently than foil. Be sure to slice into the parchment tableside, as we did at the Marx Bros. A central snip with a pair of scissors allows the steaming perfume to do its aromatic thing, impressing your guests and making them think you’ve been slaving away all day.

Here’s the drill:

You’ll need about six ounces of fish per person — plus the shellfish, if you want to go that route. Measure out your parchment (once a “specialty” item, now available next to the Glad, Saran and Reynolds wrap in supermarkets everywhere), generously giving yourself about 16 inches of paper for each filet. Fold the paper in half and cut a semi-circle, then press the fold:

Open the semi-circle, and using the fold as your starting line, lay down the sauce, or the veggies, or whatever you feel like putting in there (for the halibut in the photo, I used some mushrooms, kalamatas and shallots sauteed in butter, then added some good olive oil just for grins):

Now layer the fish over top, snug up to the fold, and tuck the shellfish in there too if you’re using it. Then give the fish a sprinkle of coarse salt and a couple cranks from the peppermill:

Beginning at one end, start making tiny folds, one right after the other, tucking the very last fold under the pouch, like this:

The one with the “N” is Nate’s — he hates mushrooms, so I left them out

When you’re done wrapping, refrigerate the fish-filled packets. Then all you have to do is pop them the 450-degree oven before you’re ready to serve:

The length of time will vary depending on the thickness of the fish, and I’ve seen “rules of thumb” ranging from 6-8 minutes to 10 minutes per inch of fish. I find that for salmon and halibut, about 15 minutes does the trick. When the parchment starts to brown and gets puffy, you’re good to go.

Here’s my pal Jack’s “salmon en papillote” sauce, as promised (calories? what calories?). It’s enough to serve 10, though the recipe may be halved.

You’ll need:

3 bunches scallions (green onions)

1 cup butter

1/2 cup flour

1/2 cup dry white wine

2 cups heavy cream

1 pint half-and-half

10 egg yolks

1/3 cup chopped Italian parsley

pinch of cayenne

salt and pepper to taste

1) Melt the butter in a double boiler.

2) Add scallions and cook until tender.

3) Whisk in flour, then wine, cream and half-and-half. Cook until thickened, keeping the water in the double boiler at a gentle simmer.

4) Turn off the heat. Whisk in egg yolks and keep the sauce warm until it thickens.

5) Add parsley, cayenne, salt and pepper.

Anybody else a fan of cooking in parchment? Feel free to chime in. And have a nice weekend. It’s “movie night” at my house. Maybe we’ll make some Jiffy Pop!

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