Friday, October 26, 2007

Tilapia with Fennel and Crookneck Squash en Papillote

I learned this method of cooking, years ago. Think of it as steaming, but taking it to the next level. It has a nice presentation that people 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 or envelope of paper and bake. 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 roasters! Similar in concept. Keep the heat and moisture in. A controlled, stable cooking environment is the surest way to make sure you can actually eat the food you're cooking.

Here's what I made, tonight...

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
Kitchen twine (not needed if using foil)


1/2 lbs tilapia fillets
2 tsp olive oil, divided
1 tbsp orange or lemon juice
1/2 fennel bulb
1 yellow crookneck squash
1 clove pressed garlic or garlic powder *
salt to taste (kosher or course sea salt, preferred)

* I actually prefer to use garlic powder (not garlic salt) better than fresh garlic. The food will not cook for long, and fresh garlic can be very strong when steamed for only a brief time. But, if you're a stickler, eat up, stinky.


Thinly slice the fennel bulb horizontally into slices. 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 disks.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.


It really looks nice with parchment paper and twine, but if you want to try it, it will taste the sae with foil. If you like it, you can buy the paper later.

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. Sprinkle garlic over the top. Mound the drained fennel on top of the fish. drizzle with the juice. Salt and pepper.

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. They should puff up big and full. They paper will also turn a little brown. Don't worry, it looks good that way. Remove from oven and place one each on a dinner plate.

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

I ate it with a spinach salad dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Favorite Combinations

So, that's one simple recipe, but the combinations you can use are many. Here are a couple that I've made.

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 start with 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.

Err on the side of a little too much liquid in the packet. Better a little too moist than dried out.

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