“The food was plain but appetizing, and Nancy ate with zest.” (from The Secret of the Old Clock — Nancy Drew Mystery Stories by Carolyn Keene)
Funny how “plain” food can motivate one to eat with such gusto, with such enthusiasm, but why not? In Nancy’s case the plain food she was digging into (as Emmy shared with me while reading the other day) was a campfire dinner.
Thanks to our very own mystery, The Mystery of the Broken Oven Latch, we just had our own little twist on the old tinfoil dinner. We went a little more refined than chunks of meat and hunks of potato and carrot lumped together with a dash of dirt then charred on an open flame, though — but only because we have four walls and we’re fresh out of Duraflames. Instead we cued up juicy whitefish filets atop fine slices of carrot and waifish spears of asparagus, dotted with herbs and splashed with broth and lemon, each portion packaged in its own parchment paper pocket.
Sounds perfectly lovely, I know, but there was a hitch. In the midst of my meal planning for the week, when I’d penciled in our dinner of fish en papillote, I’d counted wholeheartedly on one thing: that our oven would be fixed. And, sigh, it wasn’t.
Our persevering Maytag repairman had arrived time and again on our doorstep, carrying what was purported to be just the part to fix our cold, vacant oven. But each time (and there were several times, believe me, I lost count), he discovered that the parts people had sent him something either a little too large, a little too small, or something just not right at all.
Who knows what was going on over there at Maytag headquarters, but in the meantime recipes for things I couldn’t make — things that required baking, roasting, broiling — were collecting all around me. I had an entire new brownie book by Linda Collister, cookie recipes from Heidi, salmon and bread recipes from Cook’s Illustrated. It seemed the longer I was without my oven, the more I wanted to make things that had to be made in an oven. And those things wanted to be made, I’m telling you. The recipes were finding me, not the other way around, the way it usually goes.
Perhaps the saddest thing about all this is that the oven went kaput smack in the middle of winter, during those very few weeks when it’s cool enough that cranking the oven temperature is actually a welcome activity. In mid-spring and throughout summer, forget it – using the oven for anything more than baking cookies is downright unreasonable, environmentally irresponsible, even.
But life has a way of imposing gratitude on you sometimes, not to mention strong arming you into greater flexibility (something perfectly warranted, in my case). So in no time I summoned thankfulness for all the dishes I could call to order on my stovetop or on my indoor, countertop grill. You know: stir fries, risotto, things on skewers. There was even a lasagna that had a surprisingly successful rendezvous with the microwave.
But when it came down to making my fish packets, it was a now or never proposition (wait to make that fish sitting in your fridge and you’ll be sorry). I didn’t know if technically it was alright to cook parchment paper on top of my indoor grill, but there was just no other way. And, blessed thing, it worked! Eight minutes flat, and the fish flaked perfectly, the asparagus and carrots were just tender, and the whole thing smelled mighty good. We all dug in with purpose — or with zest, as Miss Nancy Drew might say.
Fish Wrapped in Parchment
This is as pretty as it is easy. Switch it up with different combinations of fish and vegetables -– whatever you have laying around. Just make sure the vegetables are all cut to about the same size for even cooking. The parchment paper instructions are adapted from those of Alton Brown, Mr. Exactitude himself.
4 4-to-6-ounce skinless whitefish filets, such as tilapia or snapper
16 asparagus spears
4 medium carrots, peeled
½ bunch chard, stems trimmed
1 to 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
½ C vegetable broth, water or dry white wine
chopped herbs (you call it! We like basil, thyme, parsley, chives…)
8 lemon slices (orange slices are an amazing variation)
salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 375 degrees or preheat indoor (lidless) grill to medium high.
Cut parchment paper into four 12X30 inch rectangles. Fold each piece in half (“like a book,” Alton says). Draw large half heart shapes on the rectangles, the fold being the center of the heart. Cut out hearts and lay flat (see? Told you it was pretty).
Snap the ends off the asparagus. Slice carrots in half horizontally, and then slice again lengthwise into thin strips, about ½-inch wide. Stack chard leaves on top of each other and roll them up, then cut into strips about 1-inch wide.
Divide vegetables evenly among parchment hearts, laying them up against the fold, and sprinkle lightly with olive oil, salt and pepper.
Top vegetable piles with fish filets. Top filets with herbs, lemon slices, salt and pepper. Fold the other half of heart over fish and, beginning with the top of the heart shape, fold up both ends of the parchment. Once you reach the end tip of the heart, gently lift up the packet and pour in a couple tablespoons of broth. Continue folding the parchment, twisting it tightly to secure it.
Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until fish flakes easily with a fork.