Saturday, June 1, 2013

Flounder en Papillote

Two words -- en papillote or al cartoccio -- provide, at least for me, one of the most interesting and tasty ways to prepare fish.  It is a method baking fish in small paper parcels or packet of parchment paper or aluminum foil.  The paper or foil is folded, and the fish is inserted along with some vegetables, spices and aromatics.  A little liquid -- whether stock, wine or even beer -- is also added, which allows for the fish to be steamed and helps keep the fish moist during the cooking process. The process seems relatively straightforward, but the key is making sure that the packet is completely sealed when it goes into the oven.  This ensures that the fish cooks properly.

The history of this cooking method is something that has always intrigued me.  It is most commonly referred to as en papilotte or al cartoccio, which would suggest that the method originated in Western Europe.  To be sure, it has been used by cooks and chefs in France and Italy since at least the 17th century.  However, it has also been used by cooks and chefs around the world.  In Latin America, cooks and chefs use corn husks or plantain leaves.  In Malaysia and Indonesia, they use banana leaves.  It is water lotus leaves in China.  Regardless of what is used, the method of cooking is the same.  For this recipe, I did not have any access plantain leaves or water lotus leaves, so I decided to use parchment paper. 

With respect to what would be steamed, I decided to use flounder fillets.  I have not cooked very much with this fish and I thought it would be a good opportunity to gain some more experience.  Flounder is a flatfish species, that live on the sea floor, usually around bridge piles, docks, coral reefs and other formations.  When it comes to sustainability, flounder is one of those fish that can be difficult to monitor.  There are several different types of flounder -- such as Pacific Flounder, Summer Flounder, Yellowtail Flounder and Witch Flounder -- and, in most stores, the differentiation is not noted on any labels.  They are all sold as "flounder."  Therefore, when it comes to buying flounder, it is important to focus on where it was caught.  Generally speaking, flounder in the bay of Maine or the Northern Atlantic are considered to be threatened, as are flounder caught around Iceland.  Flounder caught in the mid-Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean are generally considered to be better alternatives, at least according to Seafood Watch.

After choosing the cooking method and the fish, I had to select the ingredients to use in the baking and steaming process.  I decided to buy whole flounder, and, use the heads and backbones to make a stock.  This stock would be the liquid that would steam the fish.  I also found a recipe that called for the fish to be steamed with oregano, fennel, tomatoes and black olives, which gave this dish a definite Mediterranean flavor.    I found this recipe on a website called Figs, Bay & Wine.  I bought everything, but forgot the fennel bulb called for in the recipe.  I decided to substitute a teaspoon of fennel seeds, which are obviously not the same as fresh fennel, but worked in this case. 

Recipe adapted from Figs, Bay & Wine
Serves 2

2 large flounders, filleted, with heads and backbones reserved
1 onion, peeled and quartered
3 carrots, peeled
3 stalks of celery, with leaves
1 tablespoon of whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon of fennel seeds
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Leaves from 1 or 2 stems of fresh oregano
2 lemons, sliced thinly across into circles
4 tablespoons of flounder stock (see below)
1 pint cherry tomatoes
A handful good olives

1.  Prepare the flounder stock. Place the heads and backbones in a pot and cover with water.  Add the onion, carrots, celery and black peppercorns.  Bring to a boil.  Allow for a light to moderate boil for about one hour.  Strain and set aside the flounder stock.

2.  Prepare the packets of fish.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cut two lengths of baking parchment, each about 18 inches in length or as long as needed to have enough room for the fish and vegetables, plus extra for folding. Fold each length in half with a sharp crease. Arrange on one or two baking sheets.  Rinse the flounder fillets and pat dry. 

3.  Continue preparing the packets of fish.  Open each piece of parchment as you would a book. Divide the fennel between the four pieces, placing it on the right hand side of the parchment. Season generously with olive oil, salt, and black pepper. Arrange a flounder fillet in the center of the packet, tucking under the thinner end of the fillet to create a more uniform thickness – this way the fish will cook evenly. Drizzle the fish with a little more olive oil and season again with salt and pepper. Tear over oregano leaves and sprinkle some fennel seeds. Arrange three lemon slices on top each fillet and add the tomatoes and olives.  For this recipe, I diced the olives and sprinkled them over the fish.

4.  Seal the packets of fish.  To seal the parchment packets, make one fold on the diagonal at the bottom left hand corner, creasing it sharply by pressing with your finger, as you would when you fold paper.   Add a second fold following a curve so that your packet will eventually form a half moon. Continue adding sharply creased folds, following a curve up and around the ingredients. When you reach the top, pour in two tablespoons of the flounder stock, and twist the remaining paper to seal. Repeat the process with the other packet.

5.  Bake the fish.  Place the baking sheet in the oven and bake for about 10 to 15.  When they’re finished the fish will just be flaky. 

6.  Finish the dish.  Gently slide each packet onto a plate and serve immediately, allowing each diner to open his or her own packet.  Alternatively, you could open the packets yourself and plate the fillets, topping them with the tomatoes, oregano and olives, as well as spooning any liquid in the pouch over the fish.  


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