Have you noticed that lately you can’t get through a day without seeing, hearing or even using the adjective “effortless” or its adverbial cousin “effortlessly’”? Your pulled-together look has to make you look effortlessly chic. Your dinner party has to look effortless. You’ve got to make doing a thousand things a day hyper-competently look effortless. And don’t forget looking effortlessly beautiful, effortlessly graceful or effortlessly at ease in any situation that might undo an otherwise normal mortal.
Done. Done. I’m done with it. I’ve had it with the illusion of effortlessness, and I’m disowning the whole effortless family — but only after I tell you about this dish, which really is effortless. It won’t just make you look as if you cook and entertain effortlessly; you actually will. Promise.
The dish is a hobo sack filled with seafood, summer corn and fresh herbs. In French it would be called “en papillote.” In Italian it’s called “al cartoccio.” And in any language it’s a nifty way of quickly oven-steaming food so that all the moisture, flavors and fragrances stay in one place and make nice with one another.
It’s also fun. I can’t explain why, but the first time I cooked something this way, I was just about giddy. Because you can’t peek into the packet while it’s cooking, the results are almost magical.
You can cook just about anything in a packet, but fish and seafood take to the technique particularly well; they’re natural steamers. In this version of packet cooking, my current favorite, you’ve got corn-off-the-cob, cherry tomatoes, red onion, a lot of herbs, a lick of oil and butter, some lemon juice and a splash of hot sauce, if that’s what you like. (I think hot sauce and corn are the proverbial match made in heaven.) Mix everything up, put it in the packet and top with scallops, mussels and shrimp — quick-cooking seafood — and more herbs. Seal the deal, bake for about eight minutes and serve. Effortless.
The joys of cooking this way are many, but the delights of eating this way are even greater: Each person gets a packet and the pleasure of opening it and getting that first whiff of wildly aromatic steam. All those herbs, that fresh-salt scent of seafood and the warm, sunny fragrance of corn, they’re all there in that first waft from the packet. If you’ve never cooked this way, or if you’ve never eaten something cooked like this, you’re in for a treat.
■You can construct your packet from foil or parchment paper. Foil is easier to use, parchment more traditional. With either, you put the food in the center of the packet, gather up the edges and pull them together at the top — like a sack.
■The most important thing about cooking in a packet is that the packet must be sealed tight. With foil, you can squeeze and twist the top closed; with parchment, it’s best to tie it tightly with kitchen twine.
■The traditional way of cooking in this style is to take a full baking-sheet-size piece of parchment paper, fold it in half crosswise, cut as large a heart as you can from the piece, open it and place the food close to the fold on one side. Cover with the other half of the heart and then work your way around the opening, folding the edges over, origami-style, so that they’re tightly sealed. This is harder to explain than to do — a video is your friend here.
■For the cooking time to be correct, you have to start with ingredients that are close to room temperature. If you make and refrigerate the packets ahead (and you can), put them on the counter while you preheat the oven.
■You want everyone at the table to have the fun of opening their own packet and enjoying that whoosh of steam. Serve the packets in a soup bowl, so no one has to worry about a little runaway sauce.
Have fun with it, and relax. This is one meal you won’t have to make look effortless: It’s effortlessly elegant, effortlessly beautiful and effortlessly delicious for real and true.
Greenspan will host her Just Ask Dorie chat from 1 to 2 p.m. Wednesday at live.washingtonpost.com.
MAKE AHEAD: The packets can be assembled and refrigerated up to 6 hours in advance. Set them on the counter to return to room temperature while the oven preheats. If the packets are still cold, they might need to cook for another minute or two – open one packet, peek inside to check the seafood’s doneness, and decide.
From cookbook author Dorie Greenspan.
8 teaspoons olive oil, plus more for greasing
Kernels from 2 ears fresh corn (about 1 1/2 cups)
24 cherry tomatoes
4 slices sweet or red onion, rinsed in cold water, patted dry and coarsely chopped
8 to 12 thin slices jalapeño pepper
8 thin slices garlic
Hot sauce, preferably Cholula Green Pepper Sauce
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon or lime, cut in half
2 teaspoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
8 to 16 sprigs fresh herbs, such as basil, thyme, rosemary or mint, or a combination, plus chopped fresh herbs, for serving
24 mussels, scrubbed and sticky membranes removed (”debearded”), as needed
12 to 24 (depending on size) peeled, deveined shrimp
8 sea scallops, patted dry
Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven; preheat to 450 degrees. Have two rimmed baking sheets at hand. Cut 4 pieces of parchment paper, each about 15 inches square, or large enough for you to lay out the ingredients and have room to lift up the corners and tie each packet with kitchen twine. (You may need to use 2 pieces of parchment paper per packet, laid like a cross.) Use a little of the oil to lightly grease the top sides of each piece of parchment.
Combine the corn, tomatoes, onion, jalapeño (to taste) and garlic in a mixing bowl. Add 4 teaspoons of the oil and as much hot sauce as you’d like. Season lightly with salt and pepper and add a squirt or two of lemon or lime juice; stir to incorporate.
Divide the corn mixture evenly among the pieces of parchment, spooning the mix at the center of each one. Place a piece of the butter atop each portion, along with a sprig or two of herbs.
Mix the seafood together in the same mixing bowl you just used; add the remaining 4 teaspoons of oil, season lightly with salt and pepper and add more lemon or lime juice (to taste). Arrange the seafood on top of the corn and top with another herb sprig or two.
Seal the packets by lifting the corners up toward the center and squeezing the packets at the neck to make a kind of hobo sack. Secure each one at the neck with kitchen twine, making sure the sacks are airtight and that there’s puff space between the fish and the top of its sack. Put two packets on each baking sheet, spacing the packets well apart. Roast (upper and lower racks) for about 8 minutes, rotating the baking sheets top to bottom and front to back halfway through (see headnote). The mussels should have opened and the scallops and shrimp should be opaque, tender and almost cooked through.
You can transfer the packets to wide, shallow soup bowls and have diner open them at the table, or you can transfer the ragout to bowls in the kitchen. Pass or sprinkle freshly chopped herbs to top the seafood. Serve right away.
Nutrition | Per serving: 290 calories, 25 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 120 mg cholesterol, 520 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar
Recipe tested by Richard Kerr; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org