I think I’m on to something here.
I’ve found an easy way to cook a complete meal that virtually eliminates the pot and pan cleanup. And to top it off, it’s delicious enough to serve to company. This sort of discovery fosters images of Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold but it isn’t magic that I use to get this quick meal on the table. It’s a French technique called cooking en papillote (ahn pah-pee-yote). Back in West Virginia where I grew up we called it hobo dinner.
You might have eaten a version of this hillbilly treat consisting of foil wrapped packages of vegetables and meat all scrunched up, sealed tight and cooked over a fire’s dancing flames. Hobo dinner was our favorite meal back in the 60’s when my family spent weeks at a time boating and camping on an island on the Ohio River. This song by Nat King Cole always takes me back there.
The dads motored thier dinghys to the marina and work every morning leaving moms and kids to days filled with swimming, fishing and generally lazing about. Our houseboats and cruisers had small water tanks and even smaller sinks, so cooking over the bonfire with only a few dishes to cleanup was the only way to go. I remember the moms setting out canned potatoes, peas and carrots with the requisite kielbasa, hamburgs and hot dogs. Pandering to my tastebuds even as a child, I loved to assemble my own dinner creation just the way I liked it; with zippy mustard squiggled over the top.
This version, however, is decidedly more French than hobo. After all, we aren’t living on an island in the middle of a river with no access to fresh produce. So the plan for tonight’s dinner is halibut perfumed with the flavors of Provence. This “salad” topping of zucchini, fennel, garlic, lemon, thyme and salty olives and capers flavors the fish and underlying potatoes with thier juices as they tenderize on the grill or in a hot, hot oven. A sort of fancified tongue in cheek homage to hobo dinners from days gone by, if you will.
Now that I think of it, mom’s reasons for serving hobo dinner 45 years ago were much the same as mine…it’s a delicious, quick meal with minimal cleanup. No magic required.
Kitchen Counter Point: Fish is a natural when cooking with this method because the envelope in which it cooks traps the steam, maintaining a moist environment for the fish and vegetables. Remember that fish cooks quickly (about 7 minutes per inch) so be sure to slice the vegetables very thinly. You want them to be tender just as the fish is finished cooking.
If you’d like to serve this dish up for company go ahead and use the parchment for a more sophisticated presentation. But you must then cook it in the oven since the paper would combust on the grill. There are many how to’s online that show you how to wrap and fold the paper package into an airtight envelope. Just Google “en papillote and how to”.
1 small bulb fennel, trimmed, quartered and thinly sliced
1 small zucchini, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil plus more
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1/2 lemon zested
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
8 olives, halved
1 teaspoon capers, rinsed and lightly chopped
4 new potatoes, very thinly sliced
2 halibut filets, 6 oz each
Two 15-inch long sheets of heavy duty aluminum foil folded in half and then opened back up so that there’s a crease down the middle.
Preheat the grill to 450 degrees F.
Combine the fennel, zucchini, garlic, olive oil, thyme, lemon zest, lemon juice, 1/4 teaspoon salt, pepper, olives and capers in a medium bowl and toss them to combine the flavors.
Arrange the potato slices in one layer on one side of each of the creased foil sheets. Sprinkle the potato with salt and pepper and lay the halibut filet on top, skin side down. Sprinkle the fish with salt and pepper and top with the vegetables. (It will seem like a lot of vegetables, but they cook down and shrink as they cook.) If you’d like more flavor, drizzle a little olive oil over the top. Fold the foil over the fish and roll up the edges, bottom up and over the top, to seal in the juices.
Transfer the fish to the grill, close the lid and cook for about 15 minutes. Carefully remove the packages from the grill (I use a large spatula), transfer them to two heated plates and open them at the table. A waft of steam scented with herbs and lemon will rise up from the package that you won’t want to miss.
If you’d like to bake the papillote in the oven, place a sheet pan on the bottom rack and preheat to 450 degrees F. Transfer the packages to the heated sheet pan (so they can start cooking right away) and bake the hobo dinner for 20 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. It takes a few moments longer to cook in the oven since the heat isn’t as intense.
Variation: Use other vegetables you may have on hand like thinly sliced carrots, cauliflower, grape tomatoes or broccoli. Remember that the fish cooks very quickly, so cut the vegetables into thin or small pieces to insure that they’ll be tender when the fish is done. Other fish to try are salmon, cod, tilapia or trout. Swap out other favorite herbs as well such as basil, rosemary, or tarragon.