Ever stop to wonder why we bother to wrap gifts? Wouldn’t it be easier to just dispense with all those rolls of red, green, silver, gold, striped, polka-dotted and snowman’ed wrapping paper, Scotch tape, and multicolored ribbons this holiday season? Think of the savings in time, money, effort, stress… Why not simply give your gifts in the bags or boxes they came in from the store?

 

The answer of course is that gift wrapping adds an extra layer of pleasure to the receiver’s delight. The pretty, colorful, beribboned wrapping increases the gift’s appeal, mystery, and surprise. It adds suspense and drama and heightens the opener’s anticipation. It gives the recipient something to do, a task – a bit like digging for buried treasure or diving for gold doubloons.

 

“Oh, what could this be?” the excited person exclaims, as she tears at the paper and pulls on the bows.

 

Along the same lines, food that arrives on your guests’ plates “gift-wrapped” in parchment and puffy from the oven can have a similarly exciting effect. So, to take the ho-hum out of your holiday dinners in the coming days, I recommend wrapping them up.

 

 

By this I mean cooking en papillote (as the French say), or in a parchment paper case. Yes, aluminum foil or paper bags can also be used for these cases, but I prefer the more elegant, “gift-wrapped” look of parchment, especially during the holidays.

 

The method, like most methods, is simple, once you learn how:  You place an individual serving of food in the pouch, seal it, and bake it, during which the food steams in the oven, essentially in its own juices.  Once the cooking is complete – in usually 10 or so minutes – each individual diner has his or her own puffed, slightly golden packet to open at the table. And when they do, you’ll see them lean over their plates to enjoy the aromatic steam as it escapes.

 

The advantages of this cooking method – in addition to the novelty, drama, and excitement at the table – are that it’s healthy (low in fat, high in flavor), clean (no pots or pans to scrub!), delicious, quick, and fun. I introduced it to the students in my Healthy Cooking class this semester, and soon saw that it became one of their favorites.

 

As for the technique in making the paper case, I’ve always done it the French way, whereby you cut the parchment like a Valentine heart, place the food on one side, fold the other side over, and seal the edges like a calzone. (See a step-by-step video at www.finecooking.com/videos/how-to-cook-en-papillote.)  But I recently learned a new, presumably American, method from Brette Sember’s new Parchment Paper Cookbook, which results in a packet that resembles a party favor.  (Go to http://nopotcooking.com/index.php/technique/ to see how.)

 

Here is a simple fish en papillote recipe from my book How to Cook a Crocodile from the chapter on my catering days in New York. I used pompano then, but in fact any nice fish fillets will do.

 

Pompano (or any fish) en Papillote

 

Butter a large (about 15 inches in diameter) circle of parchment paper (or aluminum foil).  Lay one small (one serving) fish fillet on the paper, right of center.  Sprinkle the fish with sliced, blanched vegetables (such as carrots and/or French green beans).  Season with salt and pepper, freshly squeezed lemon juice and/or white wine.  Fold parchment (or foil) into papillote (paper case), and seal the edges (like a calzone).  Place on a cookie sheet and bake for 10 to15 minutes at 400-425 degrees, or until puffed.  Serve each person an individual papillote (unopened), with a small pair of sharp scissors, to open the cases themselves and savor the steamy aroma.