Packet meals: Cooking in foil packets
Cooking in foil or parchment paper packets is an easy way to cook delicious, individually-portioned meals with very little added fat, lots of flavor and minimal cleanup. If you've never tried packet meals, you're in for a tasty treat. Here are some simple tips and recipe ideas for cooking food in packets.
Packet cooking is quick, easy and even elegant
On the grill or in the oven, cooking in a packet -- usually foil, but sometimes parchment paper -- is simple, convenient and tasty. I first encountered packet cooking years ago on a trip to New Orleans. We were treated to a dinner at Antoine's in the French Quarter, where an elegant signature entree is Pompano in Papillote: a fillet of pompano (fish) cooked in sealed parchment paper with white wine, shrimp and crabmeat. The envelope of parchment paper puffs up with steam as it cooks and, once opened, the aroma is heavenly.
Packet cooking is versatile
Of course, you don't have to go to an elegant New Orleans restaurant to take advantage of cooking in a packet. Much more conveniently, you can do packet cooking at home. Almost any meat or veggie -- or combination thereof -- makes for an impressive presentation. And you can easily scale up or down, depending on ingredients you have on hand and the number of servings you need. The only real care you need to take is to prepare the ingredients in such a way that they cook in about the same time; for instance, a thick carrot coin takes longer than to cook than a similarly sized piece of beef, so you may want to julienne the carrot instead.
Packet cooking is all about timing
Another challenge is knowing when, exactly, every ingredient in a packet is done. I manage this by carefully selecting and preparing ingredients in consistent sizes, as mentioned -- and using one packet to check doneness. Once I've done any given meat item in a packet, I know when to test doneness the next time. With practice, you'll have no problem getting the timing deliciously right.
Packet cooking is for entrees and desserts
Packet cooking isn't limited to entrees: You can even create part of dessert in a packet. For instance, the flavors of sliced figs, honey and vanilla bean cooked in a packet meld beautifully. Open it up and pour the hot, liquidy goodness over some ice cream for a real treat, or opt for some sliced fresh peaches and brown sugar. The only limit is your imagination.
Creating a packet meal
Here is a basic guide for making delectable packet meals. These are only suggestions. Once you get the idea, get creative!
- Fillet of fish or beef, with even thickness
- Chicken breast cutlet
- Chopped chicken thigh meat or pork
- Shrimp or scallops
- Carrots, sliced or julienned
- Zucchini or summer squash, sliced
- Broccoli florets
- Fresh spinach
- Snow peas
- Green beans
- Chopped tomatoes
- Fresh or dried herbs
- Scallions or shallots
- Lemon slices
- Citrus juice
- Soy sauce
- Fish sauce
- Any other sauce or marinade you love
- A bit of melted butter or oil, if desired
You only need 2 to 3 tablespoons of liquid to create the steaming effect and to infuse the other ingredients with flavor.
1. Preheat oven or grill to 350 degrees F. For each serving, assemble an individual portion of ingredients in a large piece of foil (if you are using the oven, you can use parchment paper as an alternative) and seal. Place packets in the oven on a cookie sheet or over indirect heat on a well-oiled grill.
2. Let the packets cook (essentially steam) for about 30 minutes, depending on your ingredients. You may need more time, or you may need a little less. Let the packets cool slightly before serving. While the packets certainly stand on their own, you can serve your packet meal with rice or fresh pasta, if you so desire.