Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

For The Lazy Gourmet: Wild Alaskan Halibut "En Papillote" with Truffled Tarragon Butter, Roasted Asparagus, Yam "Gratin"

“The quality of life is determined by its activities.” ~ Aristotle

Far too often I hear friends say they never have the time or energy to cook for themselves or their families which I think is a terrible shame. Eating is something we do everyday. The fact is we must eat to survive. Though, personally, I prefer thinking of survival as a reason to eat - the so(u)l(e) purpose of life is to cast a light on good eating (but I am terribly biased, as well as ridiculously unreasonable). 
The London Times once did a few quick calculations and reported that the average person spends 6 years and ten months eating in his or her 70 year life time. That's approximately 3 681 641.36 minutes (YEP, over 3 MILLION minutes) or 1/10 of the average lifespan spent in this activity, why fill it up with foods generated by ConAgra and increase their already huge coffers?
At the risk of sounding like a Stepford Wife (remember them? *shudders*), cooking can be F-U-N!!! You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to luxuriate in a good meal shared, even if only once a millennium. And yes, I know... I know.... in this go, Go, GO!!! day and age, spending such time together seems to have become so rare that it is a luxury. However, nothing is more convivial than sitting around the dinner table, eating a delicious meal and enjoying each other's company. The family that dines together shines together (yes... I know... I know... but you catch my drift - make the time. It's your life - live it, damnit!). High quality ingredients cooked with very little effort make for very satisfying meals. These are the kind of meals I find myself making more and more lately. In fact, why not make it a regular feature of this column? Recipes with modest effort and maximal flavor. I call them cooking the Lazy Gourmet Way. 

Defining a "Lazy Gourmet" meal gets a little tricky because certain meals require minimal effort but a few hours of time (braises, large cuts of roasts etc.); other meals require minimal cook time but much more prep work and/or ingredients (stir-frys, salads, tartares, etc.) How to choose, how to choose? I finally decided that a "lazy gourmet" entree must have the finest ingredients you can afford, not much more than a handful of them (10 max), minimal prep, minimal cookware and take no longer than 20 minutes from start to finish, the maximal amount of time a starving woman (or man) can bear to wait before sinking their teeth into their nearest and dearest.

Folks, it doesn't get any yummier than this for a light, simple, elegant meal. Seriously, in the time it takes to order in a meal, you could have something fresh and delicious that will impress anyone for a special occasion, or just a nice treat for yourself. You deserve a break today and it sure as hell should NOT be from McDonalds!
For those of you less inclined to using those little heat-emitting appliances known as ovens, this meal (sans aluminum foil, unless you are looking to rival the Large Hadron Collider in generating a possible worldwide cataclysmic event horizon, ending all life on earth as we know it) could also be easily adapted for the microwave by wrapping the ingredients in paper towels, Glad plastic sandwich bags, or any microwave-safe plastic wrap.
I am going to make it even easier by providing little more than a basic outline in pictures. You get to color between the lines or outside the lines of this "recipe" yourself. With only about 20 minutes of active cooking time, you will have a meal that is delicious, nutritious and looks pretty on your plate! Now THAT is what I mean by quality of life and I bet good old Aristotle would agree.
Cooking "en papillote" is a classical cooking method in which you seal the food in a pouch and bake. The food essentially steams in the oven in its own juices, though you can add ingredients to flavor the food as I will here with just a few splashes of flavored liquids, herbs and aromatics. Various cultures use grape leaves, banana leaves, cornhusks, parchment paper, and other materials to encase tender, mild foods, which then take on the character of the seasonings they are bathed in. 
The keys to the technique are: 1) use fresh ingredients; and 2) preparation or mise-en-place which is very simple. Instead of parchment paper which is the traditional European method, I will use aluminum foil to wrap the fish, not as pretty, but very easy to do. It works beautifully with fish. My husband has a bit of cooked fish phobia, far too many Mrs. Paul's fish sticks were served to him during his formative years, putting him off the slightest whiff of "fishiness". While he has always adored sushi and sashimi for its pure pristine silken unctuousness, getting him to eat cooked fish has been a challenge, but the moist heat of the pouch keeps the fish's volatile oils from diffusing in the air. It really is the perfect way to foil the finicky eater's antipathy to all things cooked that are piscine. 
Let's talk a little bit about mise en place. When you're in a hurry to get dinner on the table, it's tempting to just turn on the stove and start cooking. But you'll save time in the long run if you spend a few minutes getting organized. Professional chefs call this mise en place, which literally means "put in place."
Mise en place is the secret that enables a restaurant to take your order and, ten minutes later, serve your meal fresh and piping hot. It all boils down to advance preparation. In a professional kitchen, the carrots are peeled, sliced and blanched. The stocks and sauces are made, the garlic is chopped, the meat is marinated and the water is boiling for the pasta. All that's left to be done is cook the meal. Once the prep work is done, the dish comes together easily. This concept translates well into the home kitchen. No matter how simple the recipe, taking time to organize your equipment and prep the ingredients will streamline the cooking process. That way, you won't be chopping the parsley for the sauce while the steaks burn, or rummaging around for the cheese grater (and the cheese) while the pasta overcooks. If you're preparing several dishes at once, mise en place is essential to prevent last-minute chaos in the kitchen.
Before you start chopping and dicing, read the recipe through twice to familiarize yourself with all the steps. The list of ingredients specifies simple prep work, such as zesting the lemons or melting the butter. The directions alert you to any tasks that must be done well in advance, such as chilling sugar cookie dough before rolling it out.

Wild Alaskan Halibut "En Papillote" with Truffled Tarragon Butter, Roasted Asparagus, Yam "Gratin"


I have given directions for microwaving everything, but really nothing brings out the sweet caramelized goodness of veggies like roasting them in the oven & it really takes very little effort, plus you can cook everything into a regular oven at the same time. Not so when microwaving. Not only is it tastier to roast but it also retains the vegetables nutrients. The small amount of  fat actually helps your body absorb vitamins and minerals more effectively.

Substitute any fish of your choice for the halibut. The only fish I wouldn't use is a dense steak fish like tuna. Fresh tuna is far better eaten seared. Preferably rare. Well done tuna is good only between slices of bread after being mashed with mayonnaise.  
Truffle Salt can be found in specialty markets that purvey yummy grub or "upscale" supermarkets like Whole Foods. Yes, it is expensive (about $20 per 3.5 oz ), but a little goes a long way and it will last you for at least a year. It's unbelievable in mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs, macaroni & cheese or just a little cappellini, parmigiano reggiano (parmesan cheese) & olive oil. Open the jar and breathe it in: earthy, musty, intoxicating. Highly prized white (or black) truffles are delicately blended with sea salt to bring rich umami to your cooking and dining. Just a small pinch is all it takes to impart flavor
Pure decadence was never so affordable.

Here are the ingredients, you can determine the quantity of each depending on how many people you wish to serve.

  • Vegetable broth, a couple of splashes
  • Dry white wine (or beer), preferably a couple of splashes from your own glass
  • Fresh Tarragon, a few sprigs, stripped and chopped
  • Halibut fillets (any white fish will do. Salmon and chicken also works nicely here. Times need to be adjusted for thickness of fillets. Generally if you can smell it, it's done, but allow about 15 minutes for a 1-1/2 inch tick fish fillet and 20 minutes for a chicken breast.)
  • Truffle salt (plain sea salt is fine) and freshly cracked pepper, to taste.
  • One large shallot, finely diced ( finely diced red onion and a minced garlic clove can be substituted for the shallot)
  • One fresh lemon, a couple of squeezes per fillet for seasoning the fish.
  • One bunch of fresh asparagus, tough ends snapped off (you can substitute any veggie you like obviously. Though for roasting nothing beats asparagus, seasoned with a bit of truffle salt, black pepper and olive oil)
  • Extra virgin olive oil, enough to drizzle over the fillets & asparagus
  • Butter, 4 Tablespoons, unsalted
  • 1/4 cup of half & half or heavy cream with a 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract added and well combined
  • Sweet potato, cooked (one per person), roasted for an hour in a hot oven or microwaved for 15 minutes on high and sliced into coins
  • Parmigiano reggiano, for grating over asparagus & yams.
  • Aluminum foil, if using oven; Plastic wrap or baggies, if using the microwave
  • Preheated oven, 450 degrees
  • Hungry people you love

Assemble all of your ingredients (your mise-en-place, as the pros say), like so:


The Yams:
  • Preheat your oven at 450 degrees
  • Roast or microwave your sweet potatoes or yams (or other tuberous veggies) until done. (Can be roasted well ahead of time up until the day before).
  • Slice into 1/2 inch thick rounds and arrange them in either a roasting pan or heavy skillet.
  • Season with truffle salt & pepper, pour half & half/vanilla mixture over it & a couple of tablespoons of butter, cut into small dice & dabbed evenly over the potatoes.
  • Then set aside, while you prepare the fish and roast the asparagus.

The Fish: 

  • Place the fillets in a little pouch of their own, using either aluminum foil for baking or plastic wrap (or baggies) if you plan to microwave your fish or poultry.
  • Season the protein with truffle salt & freshly ground pepper to taste.
  • Add the aromatics: shallots, splashes of lemon juice, wine, fresh tarragon, a drizzle of olive & a 1/2 TBSP of butter per packet

  • Then wrap the little bundle up & pop into the middle rack of your preheated oven for about 15 minutes for a 1-1/2 inch thick fillet (Or about 3 minutes if microwaving. Remember to seal the baggie but leave a little room for air to escape; venting the baggie by poking a little slit through the top & placing the fish packet on a microwave-safe dish.)

The Asparagus:
  • Now prepare the asparagus by lining a shallow baking sheet with aluminum foil and seasoning with salt, pepper, fresh juice quickly squeezed from a lemon & tossing it all with extra virgin olive oil using your hands which are the best tool for tossing veggies and salads ever invented!

  • Add the asparagus and the yams to the top rack of the oven. Roasting the asparagus for about 7 minutes & the yams for about 15 minutes. (Or microwave them instead on a microwave-safe dish for 2 minutes after the fish is done).
  • The asparagus will be done before the fish. Remove them when you can smell them (about 7-10 minutes, depending on thickness of stalk) then grate a little parmigiano-reggiano over them, dusting them lightly.

When the fish is done, remove it from the oven, set the oven on broil, dust the yams with a little bit of the parmigiano reggiano and cook the yams under the broiler for a minute until they are nicely browned.

Arrange on a plate prettily and  eat it!
Will serve four very lucky-to-be-related-to-you family members. 

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