Moist, flavourful fish fillets

Ann Maloney

THE WASHINGTON POST – I remember the first time I heard about pompano en papillote, I thought it sounded so fancy.

And when I ordered it in a restaurant, the waiter sliced open the parchment with a flourish at the table. Ooh la la.

Since then, I’ve realised that placing fish fillets in parchment envelopes and baking them is actually just about the easiest and tidiest way I’ve found to prepare fish. And it still impresses guests with its flavour and its novelty.

It is just one example of paper-bag cookery, as the The Oxford Companion to Food calls it: The method of sealing proteins up in paper with a bit of liquid for moist heat and aromatics for flavour has been used by many cultures for centuries for varying types of foods. Fish may be the classic protein, but most lean proteins can be cooked this way.

I’ve tried this with the classic pompano as well as trout, salmon and cod.

The only rule: The fish should be no thicker than about one inch.

I like this way of cooking fish because it accomplishes several goals. The moist heat prevents the fish from drying out, and the steamed aromatics penetrate the fish with flavour.

Fish en papillote. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST
This method of cooking fish doesn’t fill the house with a fishy scent the way some other methods of cooking fish can

Once the fillets are placed in the folded parchment, they bake undisturbed, so there is no need to worry about breaking up fillets while flipping them in a pan. Finally, I find this method doesn’t fill my house with a fishy scent the way some other methods of cooking fish can.

For success, choose thinly sliced or julienned vegetables, such as zucchini and carrots as I did here. Slicing vegetables into ribbons with a vegetable peeler is an easy way to make sure you have evenly sliced vegetables.

Then, select a splash of a flavourful liquid, such as vinegar. You might also consider soy sauce or citrus. The most important issue is then picking fresh herbs to include. Parsley, cilantro, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, whatever combination you like. (Fresh is best here, but dry herbs will work in a pinch.) Also, I think a dot of butter atop the fish adds a nice
finishing touch.

How you fold the parchment is up to you. I cut a large enough piece to fold over the vegetables, herbs and fish. The length of the paper will vary with the fillet shape and size.

I fold the parchment in half and then place the food just on top of that centre line, fold the parchment over and crimp the edges to seal it tight without pressing the paper against the fish. The steam needs room to push the paper into a bit of a balloon. (Yes, you can use aluminium foil, but it doesn’t make as pretty a presentation.)

The packets of fish are then placed on a rimmed baking sheet and run in the oven.

While the fish bakes, I clean up my prep work. When the fish are done, the packets are transferred to dinner plates and sliced open with scissors or a sharp knife at the table. (The rimmed baking sheet is virtually spotless, leaving you with dinner dishes and little else to clean after eating.)

When that packet is slit open and a bit of steam rises, it brings that herby aroma to your nose as you dig into piping hot, moist fish set against the bright, tender vegetables and herbs.

Some people make a side sauce to spoon over the fish, but I find that with the right combination of herbs, flavourful liquids and a touch of fat, that’s unnecessary.

FISH EN PAPILLOTE

The tradition of cooking food inside paper or bags dates back centuries, with perhaps one of the more famous versions being the French pompano en papillote. It is an excellent method for cooking white-fleshed fish, such as snapper, cod or trout, because steaming the fillets with aromatics infuses the fish with flavour, quickly and healthfully. This technique is great for people who want to ease into cooking fish. Serve with a green salad for a light, nutritious meal.

Storage Notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to two days.

INGREDIENTS

One lemon

One zucchini, peeled and trimmed

One carrot, trimmed

One shallot, peeled and sliced

Three tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

One teaspoon fresh thyme leaves or quarter teaspoon dry

Three-quarter teaspoon ground black pepper, divided

Half teaspoon fine salt, divided

Two garlic cloves, thinly sliced

Four bay leaves

Four skinless, boneless fish fillets, such cod, pompano fillets or trout

One tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Torn fresh basil leaves, for serving

DIRECTIONS

Position two racks so they are roughly in the centre of the oven, with space between them, and preheat to 400 degrees.

Halve the lemon and juice one half; reserve the other half for serving.

Using a vegetable peeler, slice the zucchini and carrot into thin, wide ribbons. In a large bowl, toss the zucchini, carrot, shallot and one tablespoon of the olive oil, the lemon juice, thyme, quarter teaspoon of pepper and one-eighth teaspoon salt until evenly coated. Cut four pieces of parchment paper. (The size of the parchment needed may vary depending on the shape of the fillets.) Fold each sheet in half lengthwise; and then open flat. Evenly divide the vegetables, garlic and bay leaves, if using, on one half of each piece of parchment, near the fold. Drizzle a bit of the drippings from the vegetable bowl on top of each pile of vegetables.

Pat each fish fillet dry. Use the remaining oil to coat each fillet and sprinkle each with the remaining salt and pepper. Place the fillets on top of the vegetable piles, then dot the fish with butter.

Fold the empty parchment half over the top of the fillets and roll the edges, crimping to seal tightly. The paper can touch the fish, but should not be pressed against it, so the packets have room to expand.

Using a spatula, carefully transfer four bags to one or two rimmed baking sheets (depending on the size of fillets you may need a second baking sheet). Bake for about 12 minutes for thin fillets, 15 minutes if the fillets are more than one-inch thick. The fish will be opaque and flake and the vegetables will be crisp-tender. To check, remove one packet and gently use a fork to flake the fish, resealing and returning to the oven as needed.

Meanwhile, slice the remaining lemon half into four wedges.

To serve, place a packet on each dinner plate. Using scissors or a very sharp paring knife, cut open the packet and fold back the opened flap, being careful of any hot steam that escapes. Sprinkle over the fresh basil and a few more grounds of fresh pepper, if using, and serve with a wedge of lemon.

NOTE: If using bay leaves, discard them before eating.

Nutrition

Calories: 319; Total Fat: 15g; Saturated Fat: 4g; Cholesterol: 93mg; Sodium: 425mg; Carbohydrates: 7g; Dietary Fibre: 2g; Sugar: 2g; Protein: 38g.