What to CookSpring

The Easy, No-Mess Meal Perfect for Spring Ingredients

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Especially around Earth Day, we're always looking for ways to cook seasonal ingredients with less waste and less cleanup. We've partnered with If You Care to highlight how cooking with parchment can help you do just that.

This time each year, as winter starts promising spring—and wandering the weekend farmer's market in my neighborhood again becomes an option—I'm thrilled to say goodbye to the one-pot hearty stews, meat-heavy braises, and earthy root vegetable roasts I’ve been happy with for months.

Just like the daffodils poking up in the park, the market reveals the first signs of changing seasons: fat spears of asparagus with tender heads; multicolored baby new potatoes; eye-catching, fuschia radishes with their frilly green skirts, luminous anise-scented bulbs of fennel with soft, ferny fronds; delicate fresh spring lettuces and greens like watercress. When I finally see these first signs of spring, I tend to zealously over-buy—I'm just so happy to have some pops of color and fresh, bright flavors back in my life. But days later, my overflowing crisper bin begs some serious questions: What am I going to do with all these vegetables? And how can I do it as quickly and easily as possible so that there’s more time to spend outside in the newly balmy air?

Pesto-Rubbed Chicken & Spring Vegetables in Parchment Packets (en Papillote)
Pesto-Rubbed Chicken & Spring Vegetables in Parchment Packets (en Papillote)

That’s exactly what happened this past weekend, and I’m happy to report I came up with a solution that would work well for any spring vegetable overflow. I dredged up my old culinary school techniques and opted for the classic en papillote method of roasting in a parchment pouch.

The basic cooking concept is pretty simple: You cut large circles out of parchment paper, fold them in half, and fill them with ingredients of your choice. To seal in the flavors and juices, you simply crimp the edges of the paper closed and pop the packets on a tray and into the oven, where the evaporating moisture from the food puffs up the parchment, simultaneously steaming the contents while keeping them exceptionally moist. As a bonus, you serve the packets straight from the oven, allowing your dinner guests (or roommates, in my case) the hands-on fun of opening their individually packaged dinners themselves.

Fresh spring vegetables and lean cuts of meat and fish are perfect for this preparation, since the tender veggies steam fairly quickly and the lower-fat proteins benefit by retaining moisture held in by the paper shell. Almost anything can be made into an en papillote meal (though fattier or thicker cuts of meat, as well as starches such as rice or pasta, may need to be par-cooked on the stovetop first). As the infographic above demonstrates, the technique lends itself well to mixing and matching ingredients based on whatever you already have on hand, whether that's salmon fillets from the market or lentils from your pantry; fresh citrus hanging around the fridge or harissa from a tube.

In my case, I had leftover cooked brown rice, chicken breasts that needed a purpose, and some homemade pesto I had frozen a few months ago. Combined with my farmers market haul and a simple vinaigrette I whipped up with pantry and fridge staples, I had the makings of a complete meal, all tidily sealed up in single-serving parchment packets. (Which was so good, I wrote up the recipe and will definitely be making it again.) At the end of the meal, I had exactly one cutting board, one bowl, and one measuring cup to wash, plus the four fairly clean dinner plates. The remains of the parchment packets, along with a few scraps, went into the compost bin. With daylight savings, the kitchen was clean and I was outside getting the last of the early spring sunshine in no time.

Pesto-Rubbed Chicken & Spring Vegetables in Parchment Packets (en Papillote)

Pesto-Rubbed Chicken & Spring Vegetables in Parchment Packets (en Papillote)

Judy Haubert Judy Haubert
Serves 4
  • 3 cups cooked wild rice or brown basmati rice
  • 1 bunch thick asparagus, trimmed and halved crosswise
  • 1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed, cored, and sliced ¼-inch thick
  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (6 to 8 ounces each)
  • ¼ cups pesto
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 orange, zested and juiced
  • cups olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 4 medium radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced
  • 1 bunch watercress, leaves and tender stems
Go to Recipe

If You Care's unbleached, chlorine-free, greaseproof, and totally non-stick parchment paper is perfect for cooking mess-free meals en papillote. Because you're assembling all the ingredients and cooking in each separate parchment packet, there's less waste and no unused leftovers. When you're done, everything can go in the compost bin—parchment paper and all.

Do you have any favorite winning combos for cooking in parchment packets? Let us know about them in the comments!

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Weeknight Cooking