Although most cooks love to hear the oohs and ahhs of an appreciative dinner table audience, realistically we don't expect it from our family on a Thursday night, or any other weeknight for that matter. That kind of adulation is typically reserved for the rare weekend when we can devote our time and attention to creating a reserved-for-company-only kind of meal.
Being the attention seeker I am, though, it's hard for me to wait for those all-too- infrequent moments. I tend to seek them out on a more regular basis by finding things that are impressive to look at, but easy to do. That's what I love about "brown-bag dinners."
It's not a new invention. I've just adapted a classic French technique called en papillote (pronounced ahn-poppy-YOTE, should you want to drop the term around the dinner table), which is a method of cooking food in a folded pouch, usually made from parchment paper. The pouch holds in moisture and steams the food in its own juices, making for a much more flavorful result than simple steaming over boiling water. I simply substitute the paper pouch, which can be a little difficult to seal, with a paper bag that I can staple shut.
A variety of choices
Then all you have to do is decide what to put inside. My kids' favorite combo is couscous, veggies and chicken, but seafood works great, too, as do parboiled potatoes. Almost any kind of vegetable will work. What's important is to make sure you slice the vegetables thin enough so they will cook in the same amount of time as the other ingredients.
With the couscous, I precook it part way, adding slightly less than the usual amount of liquid so it can finish cooking in the bag with the other ingredients. I throw in an ice cube, which then melts slowly for the couscous to absorb while cooking, avoiding a soggy-bottomed bag. A small dollop of flavored butter is the only fat in this otherwise extremely lean cuisine.
When done, I pop the bag onto a plate and let everyone open his or her own package for dinner. No muss, no fuss, and the fact that everyone's dinner comes in its own little bag holds an endless amount of fascination for kids. To top off this remarkable culinary feat, there are almost no dirty dishes.
All that's left to do is cue the applause sign and take a bow.