By Matthew G. Kadey, R.D.
Much as I adore fish, I used to panic when it came to cooking it. I'd fret about drying out that expensive fillet of wild Pacific salmon and worry that my house would smell like a smoky aquarium when I was done. My partner would suggest: "Cook that trout on the barbecue," but I'd get nervous that unless I used copious amounts of oil I’d end up with our dinner stuck to the grill. So I tended to cling to a few go-to recipes, afraid to experiment with other techniques. Recently, though, I've found the solution to my fish paranoia. It's a foolproof, mess-free and healthy cooking method: packets.
Steaming food in folded pouches of parchment paper, known in French cooking parlance as en papillote, is a time-honored technique that couldn't be easier. All you do is drop your fixings onto your paper, fold and cook. The traditional method is to bake the packets in the oven, but if you make them with foil you can also cook them on the grill—a perfect summer dinner solution. As the food heats up, it creates steam, which is trapped by the packet. That steam gently cooks your food, making it juicy and tender and creating a bit of intensely flavored liquid trapped in the packet. And you need very little oil so it’s easy to keep the meal lean and light.
I tried the packet technique first with fish but I've since discovered that it's a great way to cook chicken, turkey, vegetables and tofu as well. I pair chicken breast with fresh summer vegetables, herbs and grainy mustard and it stays moist and delicious. Shrimp come out incredibly juicy—here you'll find them cooked with a medley of corn, snap peas and peppers and perked up with aromatic Chinese five-spice powder. But the packets need not be the centerpiece of a meal. I wrap up fresh green beans, sliced carrots, broccoli or whatever vegetable I have on hand, season simply with olive oil, mustard or balsamic vinegar and throw them on the grill along with a steak or chicken. Cooking in packets gives me another great way to cook healthy, easy dinners. And I now make boatloads of fish and never have a moment of panic.