Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Papillon? No, That Was About a Prison Break

I was expecting a dinner guest this evening, which meant that I had to put a bit more than the usual effort into my offerings. “Welcome to my home. Would you like some Pasta-Roni?” would more than likely ensure that the dinner guest did not return. That wasn’t the desired outcome, so I worked up another option. In all honesty, I had an idea in my head in the event of an unexpected visitor. All I had to do was make it. Some of the items in my pantry had been beckoning me—“Make something delicious out of me. I don’t like collecting dust.” Of course, I had been offering excuses to them about why they needed to be patient. They were special and would be eaten when the unattractive items were gone. But a dinner guest deserves something better. Something that looks like I slaved over the meal for hours on end, gently coaxing out flavors and perfecting the presentation. This was a job for Mediterranean Chicken en Papillote!

I love the idea of cooking en papillote, which is French for "in a packet". A big, golden, delicious-smelling packet is brought to the table, with each diner tearing it open to see what magnificence awaits inside. Cooking en papillote is usually done with parchment paper, although aluminum foil is a very common substitute. I have an industrial-sized box of parchment paper, so I use that whenever possible. The beauty of cooking anything in a packet is that clean-up is so easy. All you really need is a baking sheet to hold the packets. Everything cooks in the paper, and you just throw that away at the end of the meal. Food cooked en papillote is also healthier. Enough oil is needed to prevent your protein from sticking to the paper, but the selected foods just steam inside their packet. Very low-fat! The downside to cooking anything in a packet is that you don’t have the ability to check for doneness. It really is a test of faith. If you undershoot it, you have to wrap everything back up and continue cooking. The other possibility is overcooked food. This may not be a problem if you’re cooking only vegetables, but no one wants to end up with dry and rubbery chicken or fish.

My guest was a no-show, but I decided to proceed with the meal. I had been planning dinner in my head for the last 24 hours, and I wasn’t going to miss out simply because I’d be dining alone. I would like to take a moment to congratulate myself on this being a true escapade. Everything was already in my fridge, freezer, or pantry; I didn’t buy a single ingredient for use specifically in this dish. Since this is another pantry meal, I can’t give measurements. Everything is just a guideline for making your own. I eyeballed it to give me a good meat/veg ratio, but you may want to omit or double some of the items. Other herbs, seasonings, flavoring liquids may also be added. Knock yourself out! I wanted to include oregano, but I discovered that I didn’t have any. I guess Herbes de Provence would be an acceptable substitute. That didn’t come to me until after I had scarfed down the chicken, and that was just a hair too late. I know you’re thinking that I should just get on with the ingredient list, instead of rambling on and making you wait. If you’ve never made the parchment packet, you can find step-by-step directions here.

Mediterranean Chicken en Papillote

1 4-6oz boneless, skinless chicken breast half
Marinated artichoke hearts, drained
Roasted red pepper, from a can or jar, drained
Diced tomato (mine was from a can)
Olive tapenade (I used Deb’s tapenade)
Salt and pepper to taste, plus any dried or fresh herbs that you desire
Oil, for the parchment paper

Preheat the oven to 450° F. Using the parchment paper heart or prepared foil, oil just enough so that the food won’t stick. Near the crease, place the artichoke hearts, red pepper and tomato on the parchment. Top with the chicken. Season with salt and pepper, then dollop olive tapenade on top. Fold in the edges of the parchment to completely seal the packet. Fold the end piece of the parchment under the packet. Place the packet on a baking sheet, and bake for 18-20 minutes, until the parchment is puffed up and brown. If you are cooking fish, it only takes 5-8 minutes in a 425° oven. Easy peasy.

I still have chicken and fish in the freezer, so I have the feeling that I will be seeing this dish or a similar one again in the coming weeks. You probably figured this out already, but cooking en papillote really is great for entertaining. All the prep work can be done in advance. Just pop the packets, already on the baking sheet, into the refrigerator, then bake when your guests arrive. They will marvel at your skill and genius as you bring the packets to the table, the smell wafting from them, taunting them with the mysteries that lie within. You don’t have to tell them that it was the easiest thing you’ve ever made. Just revel in the glory.

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