Several years ago, likely due to the recommendation of either Martha or Ina (as in Stewart or Garten), I invested in my first roll of parchment paper to use for cooking and baking. I imagine that I had reached my breaking point with cookies that were overly dark on the bottoms or with cake layers sticking to their pans, regardless of how generously I had buttered and floured. The silicone baking mats , which many bakers sang the praises of, never really appealed to me either, as I found them awkward to work with and clean. After seeing the use of parchment mentioned multiple times in the recipes of those who clearly knew their way around a kitchen, I figured that there must be something to this cooking spray substitute. I haven't looked back ever since......
There are several reasons why I prefer parchment paper to other options, despite the fact that it is a bit more expensive. It consistently prevents sticking without the use of butter or grease, so it provides a much cleaner finish to baked goods. You can use it to line the bottoms of baking pans by tracing them on the paper and then cutting it down to size. I also find that recipes bake more evenly on parchment-lined sheets. Best of all, because it is disposable, clean-up is a piece of cake (no pun intended). You simply remove the liner and throw it away.
A few months ago, when I was participating in a cooking competition, one of my creative fellow competitors, Margee Berry, used parchment for a cooking method that I had read about, but had never attempted. This method, in cooking circles, is called en papillote, and it means to seal food in a pouch made of parchment and bake. The food essentially steams in the oven in its own juices and seasonings, so it is an extremely healthy way of cooking. It also provides that "Wow" factor as each person has his or her own puffed and slightly brown packet to open, like a gift from the cook! Oh, and did I mention easy clean-up?? Here are some tips for making my version of parchment-packed fish (and a healthy side of whole grains):
- This recipe can be prepared using almost any sort of fish. Mahi-mahi, seabass, snapper, tilapia, and black cod, and salmon would all work nicely. If you are not a fish lover, then use boneless skinless chicken breasts which aren't too thick. Adjust the cooking time depending on the thickness of the fish/chicken.
- I suggest using whole wheat couscous in the list of ingredients, as it contains more nutritional value than standard couscous, but using plain couscous works just as well. They are both good for you!
- If you don't have parchment paper on hand, then you can achieve a similar effect by baking the fish in a tightly sealed foil packet.
- If you like some additional spice in your food, then add some crushed red pepper to the couscous mixture and add a generous amount of cracked black pepper to the fish.
Parchment-Baked Halibut with Mediterranean Couscous
3/4 cup uncooked whole wheat couscous
1 cup water
1 cup halved grape tomatoes
1/3 cup chopped pitted kalamata olives
3 tablespoons minced red onion
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper to taste
4 (6-8 ounce) halibut fillets
12 thin lemon slices
Preheat the oven to 425F degrees.
Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a medium saucepan and then gradually stir in the couscous. Remove the saucepan from the heat, cover, and let stand for 5 minutes. Fluff the couscous with a fork. Transfer the couscous to a large bowl and stir in the tomatoes, olives, red onion, parsley, lemon juice, oregano, and garlic. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Cut 4 (15X24-inch) pieces of parchment paper and fold them in half crosswise. Draw a large half heart on each piece, with the fold of the paper being the center of the heart. Cut out the heart and open.
Sprinkle both sides of the fish fillets with salt and pepper. Place 1 fillet near the fold of each piece of parchment. Top each fillet with 3 lemon slices and drizzle with 1/2 tablespoon olive oil. Starting at the top of each heart, fold the edges of the parchment, sealing the edges with narrow folds. Twist up the end tightly to secure. Place the packets on a baking sheet and bake for 15-18 minutes, until the paper is browned and puffed.
Place the packets on plates, cut open, and serve with the couscous.