Nearly twenty years later, and I still remember the first whole meal I ever made. Now, I’m not talking about the first time I assisted my mother in the kitchen. That would have been her letting me dredge chicken cutlets in flour, coat them in beaten eggs, and then cover them in seasoned breadcrumbs for her delicious homemade chicken parmigiana. But that’s a recipe I’ll share with you some other time. I’m talking about the first time I was responsible for the entire meal; from creating the ingredients list to prepping, cooking, plating and serving the skeptical faces of my parents and siblings unsure of my culinary capabilities.
I was twelve years old. I know that, because it was the year before my bar mitzvah. My father and future stepmother were in the middle of planning their giant wedding, which is coincidentally the reason why nobody came to my bar mitzvah. Yep, their wedding overshadowed my coming of age. And yes, I’m still bitter, because the number of guests who attend one’s bar mitzvah is a direct correlation to how much cash you get when you become a man. But that’s besides the point.
There we were, sitting on the living room floor in our oversized night shirts that came down to our knees like cocktail dresses. I probably wasn’t wearing underwear either, because at that age, I often forgot to. My middle brother was in the third week of an Accutane regimen, which made his skin so fry, he’d shed several pairs of lips like a snake does its skin.
A life and style reporter for the Saturday morning news was interviewing the chef at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Downtown San Diego. He walked the viewers through what he called “a simple and healthy way to prepare sea bass.” We watched the entire segment, and took notes along the way. Two pounds of red new potatoes, a pound of green beans, sea bass fillets, milk and seasoned breadcrumbs. All we had to do was soak the sea bass in the milk, to get the breadcrumbs to stick, and then we baked the fish instead of frying them. It was an elegant dish. Healthy because it wasn’t fried and coated in flour and egg too. The potatoes and green beans were steamed, and by the time we put the plates together we felt like professionals.
I remember the shock in my mother’s voice when I listed the ingredients we would need her to get from the grocery store.
“You’re making sea bass?” she asked, thinking her twelve-year old son is nuts.
“Trust me, “ I said, “it will be good.”
And it was!
Now, 20 years later, I’m still preparing fish dishes, only a little more sophisticated. This recipe for halibut en papillote is really easy to make, but it takes a lot of prep. I recommend making it with the farro salad and watermelon and heirloom tomato salads because there’s a lot of synergy between the ingredient lists and you can kill several birds with one stone. Just spend your time finding the best tomatoes you can find, and prepping everything in advance. Other than that, it’s simple and healthy, just like it was 20 years ago!
Halibut en Papillote with Heirloom Tomato Puree
*You’ll need parchment paper for the pouches. At least 24 inches in one direction and probably 18 in the other…you can always have larger squares or rectangles of paper.
For the tomato sauce
- ½ cup of tomato juice (preferably from the tomato watermelon salad)
- 2 cups of fresh tomato (heirloom is best)
- ½ cup flat leaf Italian parsley
- ½ cup fresh basil
- ½ cup vegetable broth (preferably from the drained farro recipe)
- ¼ medium red onion
- 3 large garlic cloves
- ¼ cup good olive oil
- juice of ½ a medium lemon
- 2 tblsp honey
- 1 tsp sugar
- a few dashes of cayenne pepper
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp pepper
For each pouch (just multiply by how many people you’re serving)
- 4-6 oz fillet of Halibut
- 2 shitake mushrooms
- 2-3 ¼ inch thick slices of zucchini (4-6 inches in length)
- 2-3 ¼ inch thick slices of carrot (4-6 inches in length)
- 2-3 ¼ inch thick slices of leeks (4-6 inches in length)
- ½ tblsp of unsalted butter
- slice of lemon
Preheat the oven to 400°
Cut the fresh halibut into 4-6 ounce fillets and set aside.
Place all the ingredients for the tomato sauce in a blender or food processor and puree until the sauce is smooth and there are no lumps left. It will come out thick and green.
Fold your parchment paper in half lengthwise. With a pencil trace half of a heart-shape on the paper, using the seam for the middle of where the heart would be if you unfolded the paper. Make the heart as big as possible, trying to maximize the shape on the paper.
Cut along the drawn lines, discard the scraps and set aside.
Drizzle some olive oil in the middle of the parchment paper and fold it in half to squish the oil around, spreading it on both halves of the heart, near the seam. Open the parchment heart again, and season the area where you’re going to place the vegetables and halibut (to one side of the seam) with some salt and paper.
Place a few pieces of leeks, carrots, and zucchini on the parchment paper.Place two mushrooms over the vegetables and drizzle a tablespoon of the tomato sauce over the vegetables.
Lightly salt and pepper both sides of the halibut fillet and place it over the vegetables. Drizzle another tablespoon of the tomato sauce over the halibut fillet.
Place the ½ tablespoon of butter on top of the filet, a slice of lemon over that, and then get ready to fold the parchment paper into a pouch.
Fold the top half of the heart over the halibut fillet and starting from the top of the heart, fold the parchment paper over itself, moving about 1-2 inches at a time along the edges, until you reach the bottom of the heart. Once at the bottom, twist the edges together to seal the pouch. If you need to use a stapler, that’s fine. The goal is to make sure no air or liquid will escape during the cooking process. Repeat this for each pouch.
Place the pouches on baking sheets and bake them in the oven for 20 minutes at 400°.
While the halibut en papillote is baking, heat the left over tomato sauce in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. This will allow the acidic notes of the tomato puree to soften and the flavors to concentrate.
After 20 minutes, remove the pouches and gently open them, sliding the contents out and onto a plate. I prefer to serve this over a bed of grains, like the farro with leeks, fennel, mushrooms and toasted hazelnuts, which can be found here.
Drizzle another tablespoon of the reduced tomato puree over the fish and enjoy!
- Instead of the farro salad you can serve this over mashed potatoes, couscous, quinoa, etc. Or if you’re on a “low carb” diet, feel free to eat the halibut and vegetables on their own.
- Instead of using butter, you can drizzle a little olive oil over the stack of fish and vegetables. I find the butter adds a welcome subtle creaminess to the dish, but it’s not necessary if you’re concerned about the fat or having the dish be vegan.
- You can substitute almost any white fish for the halibut in this recipe.
- You can also change up the vegetables in the pouch if you’d like. Get creative!