We’re all looking for new dinner ideas these days.
I’ve been searing, sauteing, roasting and grilling while we feed ourselves at home, and last week, I remembered one of my favorite camping-inspired meals: the foil-wrapped packet meal.
When I was a kid, we used to make packets of potatoes, carrots and onions, with a little knob of butter and a sprinkle of salt and pepper, before we left for a camping trip. Once at the campsite, we could put our little packets on the grate or directly on the embers and cook up the vegetables without using a pan.
The French have long used the “en papillote” technique to wrap a protein, usually fish or chicken, in parchment to make parcels that cook the protein while keeping it moist.
Louise Kenney has taken that idea and filled a whole cookbook with packet meals. “Dinner's in the Bag: 60 Easy Oven Recipes All Wrapped Up” (Quadrille, $22.99) shares dozens of variations on this basic idea, including cooking rice and pasta in the pouches. "This is the ultimate in lazy cooking," she writes. "I am an impatient cook ... and these recipes are tasty, unfussy, require no stove preparation and produce very little washing up."
Producing fewer dishes is one of the top reasons I reach for this style of cooking, even when I’m not making food at a campsite, but I also like the idea of steaming food in a pouch with minimal fat and time spent actively cooking at the stove. Kenney’s book is an excellent reminder that you can cook almost any ingredients using this method
I reached out to Tucker Shaw, editor of America’s Test Kitchen, for some additional tips for making these packets at home.
• Always bake the pouches on a rimmed sheet tray. This extra layer of support underneath the packet makes it easier to remove them from the oven and prevents a bag from accidentally leaking onto the bottom of the oven.
• If you don’t want to use up so much aluminum foil or parchment paper, consider buying a reusable silicone bag that is suited for baking, such as the Stasher bag.
• To create a nice seal on the packet, tear off a rectangular sheet of foil or parchment and place it over a small rimmed baking tray. Place your ingredients in the middle — enough for one portion in each pouch — and then fold the short sides together and roll over a few times. Kenney then recommends twisting the remaining open sides like a piece of candy to seal.
• If you have thin foil or a particularly wet ingredient mixture, use two layers of foil or parchment to prevent any accidental leakage, which could make a mess and also dry out the contents of the pouch.
• You could cut up the pieces of meat (chicken, pork, fish and sausage are best — beef usually benefits from searing instead of steaming), but you can also leave them whole, especially the fish. You’ll want to chop up the other ingredients into fairly large pieces so they don’t overcook. If you have one type of produce that cooks quickly (such as zucchini or tomatoes) and another that’s hardier (potatoes or onions), cut the hardier produce into smaller pieces and keep the tender veggies in larger pieces.
• Spread or spray a little oil on the bottom of the packet and then layer the ingredients, starting with the vegetables and then placing the protein on top, Shaw says. Leave a little headroom above the food so the steam can circulate within the packet, he says.
• Don’t forget the salt, fat and spices. A drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt is all you need, but you could sprinkle a dusting of just about any spice from your cupboard to keep things interesting.
• To check for doneness without opening the packet, especially for a meat like chicken or pork, Shaw suggests poking a meat thermometer through the foil. "One or two little holes won't have a negative effect, especially near the end of the cooking process,“ he says.
• Careful when you’re opening the packets. Steam is what cooks the food, but it could also burn your hands or face if you’re not careful.
Mediterranean Vegetables and Halloumi with Herb Oil
This is an easy, unfussy dish you can serve to friends when you’re too tired to cook. The garlic cloves are cooked in their skins – let people squeeze their own when serving rather than you doing it for them. You can throw in a can of drained chickpeas at the final stage of cooking if you want to bulk this dish up even more. You can use double-lined foil or double-lined parchment for this recipe.
— Louise Kenney
2 medium zucchini, thickly sliced
2 red onions, cut into 1/2-inch wedges
2 Romano peppers, tops and seeds removed, sliced into thick rings
10 garlic cloves, skins on
1 cup pitted green olives
4 sprigs of fresh oregano
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 (9-ounce) block halloumi, sliced
salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the herb oil:
1 small bunch of oregano, leaves only
1 small bunch of basil
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking dish with 2 sheets of parchment or foil.
Pile the zucchini, onions, peppers, garlic cloves and olives into the lined baking dish and spread out in a thick-ish layer. Tuck in the oregano sprigs, drizzle over a good glug of olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Give everything a good mix and spread out again. Seal up the parcel, taking care to keep everything in an even layer, and bake for 30 minutes.
Remove from the oven, roll down the sides of the parchment, exposing all the vegetables, and add the halloumi slices in a single layer on top of the vegetables. Return to the oven, parchment open, for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the herb oil. Finely chop the oregano leaves and basil and add to a bowl. Stir in the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. You may need more or less oil depending on the amounts of herbs you have. Ensure it’s runnier than pesto so that you can drizzle it easily.
When the vegetables and halloumi have had their final cooking time, remove from the oven and serve up with the herb oil drizzled over. Serves 4.
— From “Dinner's in the Bag: 60 Easy Oven Recipes All Wrapped Up” by Louise Kenney (Quadrille, $22.99)
Halibut and Asparagus en Papillote
Cooking “en papillote” (in parchment) looks amazing: each diner gets to unwrap their own little package at the table, letting a puff of steam and an enticing smell escape. The process also makes for a gentle way to cook finicky fish, which halibut can be —especially if it was previously frozen. Because halibut is fresh in the spring, it pairs well with the first greens of the season, like slim asparagus and whispers of chives. Any sort of herbs and butter will steam up well in the package, but the complex heat of the piment d’Espelette matches best. If you can’t find the spice, substitute a smoky paprika.
— Naomi Tomky
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 tablespoon piment d’Espelette
1 garlic clove, chopped
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 bunch asparagus, woody ends removed
1 pound halibut, skin removed, in 4 fillets
1 lemon, in 8 slices
2 teaspoons chopped chives
Heat the oven to 425 degrees. In a food processor, mix the butter, piment d’Esplette, garlic and salt until they’re well incorporated.
Lay out 4 pieces of parchment paper more than large enough to close over the asparagus and fish. If you don’t have parchment, you can use foil.
Chop the asparagus into 1/2-inch pieces (or even smaller for particularly thick stalks).
Lay down a quarter of the asparagus in the center of the parchment, then place the halibut on top of it, then 2 slices of lemon. On top, place a pat of the butter (about 1 tablespoon, or a quarter of the total).
Close the parchment by bringing the long edges together and then rolling them together down to the fish. Twist each of the short edges, so it ends up like a candy wrapper. If it’s secure, you can just tuck ends under the fish. Alternatively, hold it shut with paper clips. Repeat with the other three packets.
Place all 4 packets on a pan and place it in the oven for about 24 minutes (less for thinner end pieces, more for thicker portions). The parchment should puff up and darken, but not burn.
Plate the fish still in the package and let diners carefully pop them open at the table, then garnish with the chives. Serves 4.
— From “The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook: Salmon, Crab, Oysters, and More” by Naomi Tomky (Countryman Press, $27.95)
Chicken Baked in Foil With Potatoes and Carrots
Food baked in foil packets or en papillote has been lauded for both healthfulness and ease, but our first attempts turned out overcooked chicken, mushy vegetables and overall blandness. We chose quick-cooking boneless chicken breasts, and to ensure that they’re seasoned throughout, we sprinkle them all over with salt before assembling the packets and then refrigerate them for at least an hour before cooking. Leaving headroom at the top of the packet allows maximum steam circulation for even cooking, and checking the temperature of the chicken through the foil lets us monitor its progress.
Finally, layering the heartier potatoes under the chicken insulates it from the hot pan. Some assertive seasonings and a few splashes of extra-virgin olive oil keeps this steamed chicken dish from feeling like diet food. Refrigerate the assembled pouches for at least 1 hour before cooking.
— Editors of America’s Test Kitchen
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, sliced thin
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
12 ounces Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled, sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 carrots, peeled, quartered lengthwise, and cut into 2-inch lengths
1/2 large red onion, sliced 1/2-inch thick, layers separated
Kosher salt and pepper
4 (6-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
Spray centers of 4 20-by-12-inch sheets of heavy-duty aluminum foil with vegetable oil spray. Combine oil, garlic, thyme and pepper flakes in small bowl and microwave until garlic begins to brown, 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Combine potatoes, carrots, onion, 1 teaspoon salt and garlic oil in large bowl.
Pat chicken dry with paper towels. Sprinkle 1/8 teaspoon salt evenly over each side of each chicken breast, then season with pepper. Position 1 piece of prepared foil with the long side parallel to counter edge. In center of foil, arrange 1/4 of potatoes in 2 rows perpendicular to counter edge. Place 1 chicken breast on top of potatoes. Place 1/4 of vegetables around chicken. Repeat with remaining foil, potatoes, chicken and vegetables. Drizzle any remaining garlic oil from bowl over chicken.
Bring short sides of foil together and crimp to seal tightly. Crimp remaining open ends of packets, leaving as much headroom as possible inside packets. Place packets on large plate and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.
Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat oven to 475 degrees. Arrange packets on rimmed baking sheet. Bake until chicken registers 160 degrees, 18 to 23 minutes. (To check temperature, poke thermometer through foil of 1 packet and into chicken.) Let chicken rest in packets for 3 minutes.
Transfer packets to individual plates, open carefully (steam will escape), and slide contents onto plates. Drizzle lemon juice over chicken and vegetables and sprinkle with chives. Serve. Serves 4.
— From Cook’s Country magazine
For roasted potatoes with ultracreamy interiors in an amount to serve a crowd, an aluminum foil pouch was the answer. Crimping together the edges of two sheets of foil created the cooking pouch for our hybrid steaming-and-roasting method. It also made cleanup a breeze. Chopped fresh thyme and rosemary and butter added rich, savory flavor, but the butter alone couldn’t get the potatoes browned enough. For the best browning, we found that placing the baking sheet on the bottom oven rack, close to the heat source, was the solution.
— Editors of America’s Test Kitchen
Use potatoes that are no larger than 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
2 pounds small red potatoes, unpeeled, halved
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 garlic cloves, sliced thin
Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Toss potatoes, rosemary, salt, thyme and pepper in large bowl until potatoes are well coated.
Line baking sheet with 16-by-12-inch sheet of aluminum foil. Spread potato mixture evenly over foil, leaving 1 1/2-inch border. Flip potatoes cut sides down. Scatter butter and garlic over potatoes. Place second 16-by-12-inch sheet of foil over potatoes. Beginning at 1 corner, fold foil inward in 1/2-inch increments 2 to 3 times to seal edge. Continue folding around perimeter of foil to create sealed packet.
Transfer sheet to oven and bake until potatoes are tender, about 40 minutes. Let potatoes cool for 5 minutes. Using tongs, tear away top sheet of foil, being careful of escaping steam. Serve. Serves 4.
— From Cook’s Country magazine
Fish Fillets With Tomatoes and Olives in Parchment
This recipe from an old issue of Gourmet magazine holds up over time. Wrapping the flounder in parchment keeps it moist while it steams with tomatoes and olives. Don’t want fish? Use a thinly sliced chicken breast. You’ll need four sheets of parchment paper that are roughly 20 inches by 15 inches.
— Addie Broyles
2 (6- to-8 ounce) skinless flounder or orange roughy fillets
Salt and pepper, for seasoning
1 large tomato, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
8 Kalamata or other brine-cured black olives, pitted and sliced thin
1/2 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits
Zest from 1/2 orange, cut into thin julienne strips if possible
4 fresh herb sprigs, such as sage, thyme or parsley
Season the fish with salt and pepper, arrange 1 of the fillets on one half of the top piece of parchment, and top it with 3 tomato slices, 1/4 of the olives, 1/8 teaspoon of the red pepper flakes, 1/4 of the butter, 1/4 of the zest, and 1 herb sprig. Fold the other half of the parchment over the fillet, beginning with a folded corner twist and fold the edges together forming a half-heart-shaped packet, and seal the end tightly by twisting it. Make 3 more packets with the remaining parchment and ingredients in the same manner. (Alternatively, the fish mixture can be wrapped in sheets of foil, oiling only the inside.) Bake the packets on a baking sheet in the middle of a 450-degree oven for 10 minutes and cut them open before serving.
— From Epicurious.com