Tuesday, June 16, 2009

on hiatus

I'm in Beijing, where my internet access is both limited and slow, so I'm on hiatus for a month or so. We will resume our (ir)regular update schedule later in July.

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.)