Cooking in parchment paper, or en papillote as the French say, is a quick, no fuss, no mess way to whip up a meal that's light, flavorful and guaranteed to wow everyone. All you do is take a few ingredients and a splash of wine, wrap it up and let it cook– it's just that simple. As the parchment heats, the ingredients inside release their juices which then gently steam the contents of the packet until they are cooked.
The other day I made a really fast, tasty dinner using herb-butter brushed Petrale sole filets, fresh veggies and spicy sausage wrapped up in parchment and cooked on the grill. Yes, you read that correctly, on the grill. I know it sounds strange, but this is my favorite way to cook en papillote and a small metal pizza pan (or sheet pan) is enough to keep the parchment paper from going up in flames. You can, of course, use aluminum foil instead, (which I recommend if you are working with an inconsistent charcoal grill) but I find this to be less interesting and have had problems cooking acidic ingredients this way as they sometimes react with the foil and taste metallic. An added bonus when using parchment, is that the paper takes on the wonderful, smoky essence from the grill which is imparted onto the food.
When the dish is done cooking, usually within 15-20 minutes on a hot grill or in an oven set to 425 degrees, all you do is remove the packet and slide it straight onto a plate. The real fun begins when you tear the top off (which is best done at the table for true dramatic effect) and the essence of the dish comes wafting past your nose in a burst of fragrant steam. When you dig in to eat, I can guarantee that you'll be amazed at how moist and flavorful everything is and when it comes to cleaning up, you'll be even more amazed, as all you have to do is toss the empty packet into the garbage. With easy clean-up, dramatic presentation and the fact that you can prepare this dish well in advance and simply hold the pre-wrapped packets in your refrigerator until you're ready to cook them, I find this to be an ideal dish for dinner parties.
Traditionally fish, shellfish and simple pasta dishes are cooked in parchment, but I like to get creative and have done everything from spaghetti and meatballs to chicken cacciatore this way with great success.