Sunday, June 7, 2009

the conservation of dishes

I have a confession to make.

Despite appearances, I do not cook nearly as often as this blog might suggest. I'm not subsisting on microwaveable meals and takeout behind the scenes, but the truth is, I only prepare full meals once or twice a week. The rest of the time, I eat a lot of bread, cheese, fruit, and salad, and my cooking is limited to boiling water for a quick pasta, or stirring up a pan of scrambled eggs.

You see, sometimes, the greatest barrier to cooking a proper meal for one is not the thought of eating alone. It's the cleanup that follows. It's an expression of one of the essential laws of the kitchen: the conservation of dishes.

The conservation of dishes is a well-known phenomenon. It is defined as the desire, however irrational, to keep the implements used for cooking to an absolute minimum, and it explains such acts as eating cold pizza over the sink and paying extra for ramen that comes in its own Styrofoam bowl. It is also the impulse, however, that stops me from preparing lasagne for solo dining: it's one thing to dirty three pans and a baking dish when you have company (read: someone else to whom you can delegate the task of getting rid of crusted-on cheese bits), but quite another when it's just you.

Good recipes that satisfy the conservation of dishes are a delight, and sometimes, they turn up in unlikely places. French classical cookery tends towards dishes that use every pot and pan in the kitchen, but it's also home to the simplest, unfussiest process I've found so far preparing fish: en papillote.

The process begins by cutting out a sheet of parchment paper and greasing it lightly. The fish is placed on the paper, and sealed inside by a method of pleats to create a neat little packet. The fish is then baked in the oven, where the packet puffs up and creates a sort of steam chamber, resulting in fish that is tender and full of flavorful juices. Serving is simply a matter of cutting open the packet and sliding the fish onto a plate, and cleanup is almost nonexistent.

And if you're not dining alone, it's easily multiplied. Your designated crusted-on-cheese-bits-scrubber can take the night off.

Arctic Char En Papillote

This is really more of a method than a strict recipe. Feel free to change the fish and the seasonings - the only non-negotiable item is the parchment paper.

(Serves one)

Preheat your oven to 375F.

Lay out a sheet of parchment paper roughly as long as it is wide. Fold it in half.

Cut out a half-heart large enough to hold your piece of fish. Open the paper.

Take a bit of butter and use your fingertips to smear it all over the inside of the paper, greasing it lightly. Place your piece of fish in the middle. Top with a little more butter (just a thin slice) and some julienned leek.

Fold the paper over, and starting at the rounded edge of the half-heart, fold the paper in overlapping creases until you get to the other end. Twist the point to secure the paper.

(Here's a closeup of the pleats)

Transfer your parchment package to a baking tray, and place the tray in the oven.

Bake for eight to twelve minutes, depending on the size of your fillet. (It should be close when it starts to smell good.)

Carefully cut open the packet and gently slide the fish onto a plate, being careful not to lose any of the juices. Serve with a salad and something starchy on the side.

(Hmm... that doesn't look like the same piece of fish, does it? I may have forgotten to take photos of the finished product the first time around. I believe this one is the work of either Alex or Carl.)


Jacqueline Church said...

I love en papillote for a couple of reasons: conservation of dishes and clean up is one. Healthy delicious food is another. Drama - a third.

Plus the juices that come out of your little packet are perfect for rice or cous cous.


(my version in the link)

Photon said...

I think that was Carl's doing. Thanks for the tasty fishy!

adele said...

Jacqueline - I can't believe it took me so long to learn about it.

Photon - Anytime!

kcr said...


Was tasty. Remembered. Now hungry. *sigh*

adele said...

kcr - Sorry!

Cakelaw said...

Very nice - there's nothing like a lovely piece of fish. I handle the cooking for one thing by eating the same meal all week - at least you cook several times a week :)

adele said...

Cakelaw - I'd do that more often if I owned a microwave. The problem is, my kitchen is tiny, and I just can't sacrifice the counterspace!

sudu said...

This was somewhat new for me but in Indian style cooking fish is mixed in spices and yogurt and similarly wrapped in banana leaves and steamed- but i never attempted it becoz it seems like a difficult one to get it right. This it seems so easy and delicious- I will have to try it. I found this Sole in papilotte by Gordon Ramsay lots of herbs and veggies to get a filling lunch- must try!

adele said...

Sudu - I do want to try cooking with banana leaves at some point, but I'm not sure where I'd find them in Boston. (It does seem kind of tricky, too.)

The Ramsey recipe looks like a good one!

Joh said...

Are there any kinds of fish that you know of that WOULDN'T be good en papillote? Tilapia is so lovely and inexpensive, as is halibut, and I could see a situation of fennel, tomatoes, and black olives kind of like a puttanesca deconstructed(and with a different type of fish).

Mmmm, this is happening soon. It's another great reason to replenish my parchment supply. En papillote and cake practice! Yay!

Julia (alias Yulinka Cooks) said...

I don't mind getting dishes dirty, but when eating alone, I usually crave really simple food. Cut-up vegetables, cheese, turkey, some crackers, etc.

adele said...

Joh - I suspect really oily fish (like mackerel) might not respond so well to the treatment. But it works fine for anything in the salmon family, and firm-fleshed white fish in general. Let me know if you try the deconstructed puttanesca - it sounds great!

Julia - I like eating bread and cheese and fruit for dinner. But part of that does stem from the "Hey, easy cleanup!" impulse. :)

~~louise~~ said...

What an insightful post, Adele. I must confess, I don't cook as often as my blog would suggest either. I would like to try this dish though. I'm always looking for salmon meals to "play" with. Thanks for sharing...

adele said...

Louise - I think it might be interesting, sometimes, to write a post describing what my meals really look like over a week. Kind of like the Fridge Friday event (taking photos of the contents of one's fridge.)

The recipe I've provided is just a starting point - you can add whatever seasonings catch your fancy.

Philosofya said...

That fish looks delicious. Also. Dishes=death. But paper plates=death too. And then Philo goes for the Chinese food menu.

adele said...

Philosofya - A prime example of the conservation of dishes at work. :)

Cecilia said...

Nicely done. Makes me wonder if all food bloggers, garden bloggers or bloggers of any ilk write more about their passion than actually engage it. Goodness knows, I have felt fraudulent a time or two talking about vegetable gardening when I had let my garden go to ruins. I may have just outted myself. I'm better now and have just started a new blog connecting my love of gardening and my love of good food. It's in its infancy, but I'll be filling it up soon.

adele said...

Cecilia - That's entirely possible. I find that when I do cook full meals more than once or twice a week, I end up with too many leftovers. Besides, sometimes there's nothing better than half a crusty baguette, some decent cheese and an apple for dinner. :)