No more overcooked fish: It sounds Frenchy-fancy (and looks and tastes that way, too), but this method is about as dummy-proof as they come.
LE CAVISTE IS LODGED in an ordinary, contemporary ground-floor retail spot on an unexciting block in downtown Seattle, which only makes its lovely Frenchiness more of a surprise. People experiencing this little wine bar for the first time often look like they’ve just received an unexpected gift, then unwrapped it to find something small but perfect, something that they’d always wanted that’s now right in hand.
Some of the minor miracles of the place — besides the French wines, of course — include the selection of cheeses, the bright-idea light bulbs (you’ll see), the ministrations of the kind staff and how much well-priced goodness is packed into the tiny space. Ask whether beef tartare is on offer in addition to the brief chalkboard menu, and if it is, get it; owner David Butler is very particular about its preparation, and at his place, it is done properly, and it is great.
But what we’re concerned with at the moment is the only hot entree that Le Caviste serves every day (except Sunday, when they rest). This is poisson en papillote: fish cooked in parchment paper. The first time you have this dish, it, too, feels like an unexpected gift, for you get your own hot little paper-packet of goodness containing a perfectly cooked piece of fish. (Every time after, if you’re me, it still somehow feels like an ideal surprise.)
At Le Caviste, the kind of fish varies, as it should, with the best of what’s available; underneath, there’s always a layer of very thin potato slices, tender and buttery and, again, perfect. Fish en papillote is incredibly pleasing to look at and to eat — both elegant and fun, a combination that should be much more prevalent in life in general. It feels special.
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Of course, Le Caviste will make it for you, but another surprising thing about this fancy-sounding (and -looking, and -tasting) thing is that it’s really not hard to do it yourself. Yes, some assembly is required, but that, too, turns out to be fun — and I swear, I’m not in the why-not-just-make-your-own-croissants camp. You’re basically putting fish in an envelope, mailing it into a hot oven, then voilà: impressive!
If you have fear of cooking fish, well, so do I. It goes from just right to overcooked so fast! And a piece of overcooked fish is a sorrow, small but real. (I always think, morosely, “A fish died for this!”) So more good news: Fish cooked in parchment paper is as dummy-proof as it gets. The two variations here — one with potatoes, along the lines of Le Caviste, and one with asparagus, along the lines of thank-God-for-spring — have cooking times that vary by five entire minutes. (Potatoes, even parboiled ones, take longer to cook than asparagus.) In the non-en-papillote world, cooking fish for five more minutes can be ruinous. Don’t even worry about it! That fish is crimped snugly into its packet, all steamy-nice with butter and wine and lemon, plus herby-garlicky parsley sauce. The steaminess can’t get out, so there’s no danger of the fish drying out.
If you encounter trouble with folding and crimping closed the papers’ edges, just use a paper clip at any questionable spots. (The pros at Le Caviste don’t ever need to do this, but I’ve done it at home.) Then, you and your friend each get your own wrapped-up present of a supper. Serve with some baguette for sopping up the extra lemony-winey-buttery sauce, or just tilt your plate until it pools in one side of the packet and use a spoon. And when life gives you lemon slices this good, you should eat them.
Fish en Papillote with Potatoes or Asparagus and Parsley Sauce
Any kind of white fish works, but if it looks nice and fresh, I’m partial to rockfish, aka Pacific snapper — it’s firm but luxurious, and performs like a much pricier fish when cooked en papillote. If you’re making it with potatoes, Yukon Gold are good, but really, any kind is fine. And note that if you are using potatoes, that requires a little ahead-of-time prep, as follows.
If using potatoes:
A couple hours (or a day or two) ahead of time, parboil one medium potato: Wash it thoroughly, and bring enough water to amply cover it to a boil. Add potato carefully, reduce heat to medium-high and cook for 15 minutes. Rinse with cold water, and put uncovered in a bowl in the fridge to cool before slicing.
For the vegetables:
1 medium parboiled potato, sliced into very thin rounds (a mandoline helps a lot)
— or —
1 bunch (about 12 stalks) asparagus, rinsed and butt-ends snapped off
For the fish:
Parchment paper (find it with the aluminum foil and plastic wrap)
2 pats of butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 fish fillets, 4 to 6 oz. each, of rockfish, cod, flounder or any white fish
4 thin slices of lemon
2 tablespoons white wine
For the parsley sauce:
1 clove garlic
½ bunch parsley (about a cup loosely packed, not including larger stems)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
About ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Make the parsley sauce: Mince garlic and chop parsley finely, and add to small bowl. Add salt, and stir to combine. Drizzle in olive oil slowly while stirring thoroughly with a fork. (You also could use a food processor or immersion blender.)
3. Assemble your packets on a baking sheet: Tear off two large squares of parchment paper, and crease them on the diagonal. On one diagonal half of each square, near the crease, arrange a slightly-larger-than-fish-fillet-shaped layer of potatoes barely overlapping, or a slightly-larger-than-fish-fillet-shaped raft of asparagus. Put one pat of butter atop the potatoes or asparagus, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Put the fish fillets atop the potato or asparagus layer; sprinkle with salt and pepper, then top each fillet with two slices of lemon and half the parsley sauce. Pour one tablespoon of wine over each fillet.
4. For each packet, fold the parchment paper over diagonally, then fold and crimp the open sides tightly around the fish and vegetable arrangement to create a half-moon-ish shape. You want to create a good seal; if any spots seem like they might let the steam out, use (uncoated!) paper clips to secure them.
5. Bake on the baking sheet: 20 minutes for potatoes, 15 minutes for asparagus.
6. Slide each packet onto a large plate, then slit the top with a sharp knife and serve immediately, letting your guest tear theirs open more themselves. Voilà: impressive and fun!