Thursday, June 12, 2008

Tilapia en Papillote

I learned this method of cooking years ago and use it quite a bit. Think of it as steaming, but taken to the next level. It makes for a great presentation that people just aren't used to, cleanup is easy, and most importantly, it tastes great.

The term en papillote (meaning "in paper" or "in parchment") is a method of steaming that concentrates the flavors of foods so much more than traditional steaming does. After all, most of the typical steaming that we might do results in dumping plenty of flavor down the drain. Not so, here. With this method, we wrap the food in it's own pouch of foil or an envelope of paper, then bake it. It's quick and easy and, in the end, you haven't really lost any of the steaming liquid.

You may have seen fish cooked in large foil packets, turkeys in oven bags, or even those plastic bag pot roast roasting bags. Similar in concept, just less elegant. They all keep the heat and moisture in and allow for a controlled, stable cooking environment. It's almost a sure way to know you can actually eat the food you're cooking.

Here's what I made, tonight. Tilapia with Fennel and Crookneck Squash en Papillote, steamed rice, and fennel salad. I don't think my fennel salad is all that special since I just threw it together. But I'll put it down at the end because it's so simple. Plus, if you don't have a plan for the other half of that fennel bulb, go for it. If you do, or you're doubling this recipe to serve four, then just serve "salad," sans fennel... ;)

Tilapia with Fennel and Crookneck Squash en Papillote

Serves 2

Things you'll need:

Parchment paper, cut into two 12" x 12" squares (or aluminum foil, which isn't so pretty)
Kitchen twine (not needed if using foil)
Stapler (optional)

1/2 lbs or more tilapia fillets
2 tsp olive oil, divided
1 tbsp orange or lemon juice
1/2 bulb of fennel, trimmed of fronds and stalks, and cut in half lengthwise
1 yellow crookneck squash
1 clove pressed garlic *
salt to taste (kosher or course sea salt, preferred)

steamed brown or white rice (optional)
fennel salad (recipe below)


Core the fennel bulb with a sharp paring knife. Thinly slice the fennel bulb horizontally into half rings. Bring a small saucepan of salted water to a boil. Cook the fennel in boiling water for 4 minutes and then drain it.

Thinly slice the crookneck squash into thin disks.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

The actual cooking

Lay the sheets of parchment paper on the counter. In the center of each, make a gentle mound of half of the squash disks. Top the squash with a fillet of tilapia. Drizzle the fish with a tsp of olive oil. Mound the drained fennel on top of the fish. drizzle with the juice.

Bring the four corners of the paper to the center, gather them, and tie them closed at the top with a length of twine. Tie a bow, maybe. Spread the paper a bit, so they look attractive. Note that the bundles should have plenty of air space over the food. Do not gather them tightly to the food. The bundles should be as large as possible.

Place the bundles on a cookie sheet and place them in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. Make sure that the paper does not touch the ceiling of the oven. Paper burns at 451 degrees, so we're good at 400.

Once cooked, they should puff up big and full. They paper may also turn a little brown. Don't worry, it looks good that way. Remove from oven and place one each on a dinner plate, alongside the steamed rice, if you're serving it that way.

At the table, remove or cut the twine just before serving, allowing each diner to actually open up his or her own packet.

So, that's one simple recipe, but the combinations you can use are many.

Favorite Combinations

Shrimp, julienned carrots and colorful bell peppers, green onions, sliced garlic, and butter
Delicate white fish, lemon juice, julienned leaks or peppers

Chicken breast, lemon grass, kafir lime leaves, minced basil leaves, thai chilies, coconut cream.

When you cook your foods en papillote, make sure to use quick cooking foods, cut small in quick cooking pieces. If the foods are longer cooking (like fennel, potato, etc.) you can blanch them ahead of time.

When you choose your meat, keep in mind that the meat will not brown much. Fish, pork, chicken breast, and shellfish tend to look good when cooked this way.

You can add some variety with unusual herbs, spices, and other very flavorful ingredients, too. Get creative.
  • Tea leaves
  • Green onions
  • Lemon grass
  • Citrus peal
  • Kafir lime leaves
  • Hot Peppers (whole, dried or fresh)
  • Beds of herb stalks, such as rosemary or thyme

Unusual additions
  • Tea (concentrated liquid)
  • Lemon juice
  • Salsa
  • Fruit
  • Soy Sauce
  • Vermouth
  • Wine

If you end up trying this method out, I'd love to hear back. Let me know any favorite combinations, no matter how simple or complex. Your comments are welcome and wanted.


Oh, here's the fennel salad.

Tossed Fennel Salad

4 cups or 1 heart of romaine, torn or chopped
1/2 bulb of fennel, trimmed of fronds and stalks, and cut in half lengthwise
Several sprigs flat-leaf parsley (or save some of the green springs from the fennel bulbs), chopped
A few grape or cherry tomatoes or larger tomatoes, cut up into bite size pieces
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
salt and black pepper
Parmesan or Romano cheese, shaved for a garnish

Cut the fennel bulb in half lengthwise again. Core the bulb with a sharp paring knife. Thinly slice the fennel bulb horizontally into very thin half rings. Add the lettuce, fennel, parsley, and tomatoes to a large bowl. Drizzle with oil and vinegar, salt and pepper. Toss lightly and dish onto two bowls or plates. Garnish with shaved cheese.

1 comment:

  1. I blog out of Redding, CA, and have only known the word guapo in a positive framework. When my filipina friends call me gwapo(spelling change intentional) they are saying I am quite handsome... Sigh. I never would challenge their judgement...

    As for the talapia en papillote, I am saving the recipe.


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