top of page

Old or new? - En papillote

"The team in the Ottolenghi test kitchen took some persuading about the benefits of cooking en papillote – they thought it was way too old school to include here" Yotam Ottolenghi

Today is the first day in ages that I am cooking something from scratch, by which I mean I am not dealing with leftovers or vegetables in decline here. In some ways easier than the aforesaid leftovers, and in other ways much more difficult. After all the world is your oyster here - now there's a phrase that I should look into some time - but what I mean is that what you have is a blank slate - nothing. You have to conjure up in your head what you would fancy cooking and then see if you can.

Of course there are always limits, boundaries. If you don't want to go to the shops, then you need to make something from what you've got in your fridge or pantry. And I don't want to go to the shops today. Are you going to make this up from your own head and experience, or are you going to follow a recipe? If a recipe then from where? What is your starting point? Suffice to say there are always choices.

Today I made my starting point a recipe from this book by Claudia Roden - Picnic. It is my very favourite Claudia Roden book and it's falling apart. Why this book? Well it's guru week and it's Claudia Roden's turn so I went to the next of her books on my shelf.

This book taught me so much about cooking and marinades in particular. As the subtitle to the book suggests - The Complete Guide to Outdoor Food - it is very comprehensive, for there are lots and lots of ways of eating outside, from just taking your dinner outside to eat in the garden, to graveyard banqueting in China. There are actually very few recipes in the sense that we generally expect. There are a few with a list of ingredients followed by a method, but mostly it's just a line or two on 'how to' with a few suggestions of 'what to use'. Plus longish passages on the types of outdoor eating that we might encounter in our lives, or which have taken place in the past and around the world. Unlike many of her books, the Mediterranean does not dominate, although it is certainly there. No, in this book we begin with genteel English Tea on the lawn and end with Indian picnics: a legacy of the Raj. Cucumber sandwiches to tandoori chicken. It is truly a wonderful, wonderful book.

No glossy photographs of course, but the occasional line drawing like this one - all by an artist called Linda Kitson.

Earlier in the week I had flicked through the book looking for something that I might make, but everything seemed so everyday and ordinary. The same thing had happened to me a fortnight ago when my guru had been Julia Child and her massive tome The Way to Cook. Everything seemed so passè - Bouef Bourguignon, Coq au vin ... And I gave up. I was about to do the same with Claudia Roden - I mean we all know about the simple marinade of lemon, oil and garlic don't we? But then I realised that back then I had never thought of doing such a thing. I learnt from those wonderful old, and deceased ladies - for they were almost all ladies - Robert Carrier being the only exception. I do not call them gurus for nothing. So I determined that by hook or by crook I would try something from Picnic. I pondered on Cauliflower, leek and cheese soup - for I have cauliflower which should be used soon, but I know this would not be a favourite for David, so I chickened out - pardon the pun for I also pondered on Hunter's chicken (Poulet chasseur; Pollo al cacciatore) but in the end fixed on chicken breasts en papillote - I fancied chicken and there are always breasts in the freezer - marinaded in that lemon, oil and garlic - which I really should go and do - but stuffed with lots of parsley mashed (well blended) with breadcrumbs, butter and garlic - maybe more lemon - no I might just slice some lemon on top for the look of it all.

As I said there is no real recipe here, and in fact I am combining two of her suggestions - the first for the marinade of 'olive oil, pepper, and plenty of lemon juice and crushed garlic' (is that a recipe?); together with the stuffing:

"Work equal quantities of fine breadcrumbs and softened butter to a paste, season with salt and pepper. Add a generous amount of crushed garlic and enough finely chopped parsley to make it very green, and moisten if you like with a teaspoon or more of cognac."

Which I think I will vary by substituting those lemon slices on top for the cognac. Maybe I should substitute melted butter for olive oil in the marinade too. I imagine it might look a little like the version above from Serious Eats whose contributor Yvonne Ruperti uses different flavourings. And should I add some crunch - some pine nuts perhaps? I saw a recipe from someone that did that. Serve with rescued garlic and parsley bread from the freezer, reheated, and some peas à la française. Maybe a watercress salad as well.

Reading over that paragraph I see that these days I tend to vary slightly from the original suggestion and I think/hope that Claudia Roden would be pleased about that. This book taught me so many everyday things to do with cooking to the point that I no longer have to rush to a cookbook to see what to do. Nowadays I only do that when I want to cook something completely new - or maybe revisit an old favourite. Which I should have done with Julia Child. Sorry Julia.

Enough of Claudia (and Julia) and today's chicken breast, what about the whole idea of cooking en papillote? Historically they all say that it dates back to France in the 17th century, but we all know that people have been wrapping food in various leaves and cooking them over a fire, for centuries before that all over the world. Nevertheless:

"cooking en papillote reached its height of popularity in the gilded days of haute cuisine when food was often served with flourish and ceremony. Perfectly wrapped parcels were cut open at the table with a show and aromatic plumes of steam. Today, cooking en papillote still maintains its place in fine restaurants albeit with less pomp." D'Artagnan

So why did haute cuisine think it was a good thing to do other than for the theatre? And there certainly is theatre. Henry Dimbleby begins an article in The Guardian about en papillote with a very gruesome tale of long ago feasts of ortolan - a tiny and now endangered bird but goes on to say:

"Cooking en papillote – in a bag or envelope, preferably made from baking parchment – is fantastically simple, cuts down on washing up and makes everyone go: "Wow!"" Henry Dimbleby/The Guardian

So yes, it's simple too, but it's also the perfect way of combining steaming and baking, especially for fish - which is the most used for this technique, and things like chicken breast which can be dry if you are not careful.

"everyone gets to open their own package at the table, sending up a fragrant cloud of steam and, an added bonus, there's no need for a separate sauce because each parcel contains its own tasty juices." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Actually tonight's offering won't be in individual packages. There is just one breast between the two of us because chicken breasts are so large these days are they not? I was just going to marinade it, stuff it and then cook it, but having read various people talking about the benefits of placing your meat or fish on a bed of vegetables I am now wondering whether I should lay it on a bed of shredded lettuce, sliced shallots and peas rather than cooking them separately. To be decided.

Seeing as how it's partially steamed the health fanatics love this method too of course, which Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is wary of:

"Cooking en papillote (in parcels of paper or foil) was once all the rage. It appealed to those keen to cook without fat, but often, alongside the fat, they left out the flavour, too, resulting in unappetising concoctions with all the oomph of a floppy carrot." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

And there's that word again - 'once' - meaning in the past, reinforced by Yotam Ottolenghi's comments about his team in the test kitchen not being excited about it.

There's a lot of writing about how to do the wrapping as well - and indeed what to wrap it in. Foil is easiest, but anything acidic might discolour things, and the food is likely to stick unless you grease it well. Baking paper seems to be the favoured option but it can be difficult to seal it. Claudia suggests wrapping in the parchment and then foil outside of that - interesting that she was the only one I saw who suggested that. Heart shape, square, rectangle, one sheet on top of the other? But Claudia, bless her, says:

"you may wrap up the food in any way you like as long as it is properly sealed in." Claudia Roden

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall too, is not prescriptive. In the article linked to here, he suggests, Fish in newspaper, Sardines in filo and Apricots and star anise in baking paper. Seeing the newspaper suggestion here reminds me that this is sometimes suggested for camp fires and barbecues - particularly for fish, which don't take very long to cook. You wrap them tightly in layers of newspaper - three for the tabloid size Hugh suggests - then properly soak the parcels in water before cooking over the fire. Remove when they start to burn!

To finish, here are a couple of very tempting looking ideas for chicken, one of which - Chicken Basque en papillote from Our Modern Kitchen is included because Claudia had also suggested a similar dish, and I considered it - or a variation thereof because I have tomatoes - too many cherry tomatoes:

"In Italy a purée of peeled, seeded and mashed tomatoes sprinkled with some finely chopped fresh basil or parsley, is very popular. A thin slice of Mozzarella is sometimes added."

I think the Our Modern Kitchen one looks rather more spectacular though. And finally there are Chicken papillotes from French Cooking Academy, which in typical French fashion includes cream - and mustard and thyme.

My worry is that it will just look and taste somewhat anaemic, which is why there will be plenty of garlic. I will report tomorrow.

Next week is a 'something new' week for the 'cook from an actual recipe' weekly resolution. Although I see I am already straying from Claudia's recipe. But then it wasn't really a recipe. Just a hint and a prod in a direction.


Related Posts

See All


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page