Fish in a bag

When the “TODAY Show” comes calling, here’s what to cook

click to enlarge Opening the fish en papillote.
Opening the fish en papillote.

What a long strange trip it’s been! This line from the Grateful Dead’s song “Truckin” keeps going through my head as I look back at the events of the last three days.

It all started with an email I received: “Hi Peter. I work with Nonesuch on public relations, and we’ve received quite a bit of interest in your work in the kitchen. We’ve been contacted by some media outlets, and would love to gauge your interest in being interviewed. If you’d like to move forward, we can let the producers know and keep you posted on the next steps from there.”

Due to my advanced age of 66, I’ve become a bit of a novelty in a restaurant where everyone else is under 30. I assumed it was the local newspaper or TV that wanted to interview me. I replied that I’d be happy to participate.

“Thank you for the quick response. A producer from, a digital branch of the “TODAY Show” read Bon Appetit’s article about late life career transition as a line cook. She thought the story was heartwarming, fun, sweet and endearing. She wants to know if you’d be open to them doing a profile on you.”

I just stared at the email in disbelief.

The plan was to fly in a production team from New York to spend a day filming my wife and me preparing dinner in our apartment and then filming me for two days working in the restaurant. The three days of footage would then be edited into an eight-minute mini-documentary. This sounded very intimidating… actually terrifying.

Our apartment is Oklahoma City is quite humble, small and sparsely decorated. Since we only planned on being here for a year we left most of our belongings back in Springfield. So we did the best we could to make the place look nice. We filled the empty spaces with the folding tables we use for camping and covered them up with tablecloths and topped them with big flower arrangements.

The production crew arrived with multiple cases of equipment. The plan was to interview me for an hour, interview my wife for 45 minutes, and then film us making dinner together. They looked around our tiny apartment and asked if they could move all of our new decor into the bedroom to make room for the lights, mic stands and tripods. Then they sized up our kitchen. Our kitchen is so small that the two of us can’t work in there at the same time. It was impossible to find a camera angle that would show me cooking at the stovetop. They asked if they could instead film us prepping our ingredients at the counter. I had planned on making paella and I had already prepped my ingredients so there was nothing to film. I would have to reconcept my menu very quickly.

After an hour of tweaking and adjusting they were ready to begin. The air conditioner and fans had to be turned off to eliminate background noise. Summers are brutal in Oklahoma. The heat index outside was 106. I started to perspire and could feel my shirt sticking to my back as I sat on a stool trying to look cool and composed. My hour of interviewing felt like three.

Then it was my wife’s turn to be interviewed. She changed into dry clothes and redid her makeup. I pulled some fish out of the freezer and retreated to the bedroom to figure out a new dinner menu that would involve filmworthy preparation steps. I decided to use a cooking technique called en papillote.
En papillote is a French term meaning “wrapped in parchment.” This technique allows you to cook fish, vegetables and seasonings together in a closed packet. Because all the moisture is contained in the packet, the food cooks by steam and retains all the flavors and nutrients. If you open the packet at the table you are treated to an enticing aroma.

I like to use this technique to cook fillets of halibut, cod, catfish and salmon. I can even add any vegetables I find in my refrigerator’s produce drawer such as grated carrots or zucchini, scallions, minced garlic, ginger or thinly sliced fennel. Fresh herbs are a nice addition: parsley, basil and dill work well. Thin slices of lemon, lime or orange can add acidity.

Fish en Papillote

2 - 12x16-inch squares of parchment paper
2 4-6 ounce fish fillets
2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, basil or dill
4 tablespoons dry white wine
2 slices of lemon, lime or orange

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F
Rub each fillet with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Place each fillet in center of parchment and sprinkle with garlic and herbs and top with a slice of citrus.
Fold the parchment to make a tight packet
Reopen one end and add wine.
Refold to seal. (You can secure ends with toothpicks, binder clips or clothespins.)
Place the packets on a sheet tray.
Bake about 10-12 minutes.
To serve, open each packet open with a sharp knife or scissors. Be careful; the steam will be very hot.  

On the night of the filming a powerful storm hit Oklahoma City and Nonesuch lost its electricity. The second day of filming had to take place in Peter’s bus. Fortunately the power was restored by day three and they were able to finish  filming at the restaurant. The show is expected to air in December

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