Fish en papillote

Whew, it’s been a long few weeks of radio silence around here. So let’s get back to it! I’ve missed you.


Being that San Francisco is a peninsula and that nowhere in the city is more than 5 miles from the ocean or the bay, you would think we would have some amazing and cheap seafood out here. And there is some seafood, but not nearly as much as I expected growing up near the coast in Massachusetts. I cook a fair amount of shellfish at home, but not a lot of actual fish. Part of this is certainly fear – most of the fish around here is firm fleshed white fish. And those fishes – like flounder, trout, and tilapia – are pretty low in fat which means they are just awful when overcooked. Salmon, with its richness, can handle some overcooking so it’s not as intimidating. But white fish just can’t so up until a month ago I made it rarely and hovered over it whenever I did.


But a few months ago I went to a book talk where the author mentioned cooking leaner cuts of meat at a low temperature for a longer time as a way of controlling the heat better and avoiding overcooking. Not only does it give you a longer window to judge the doneness but there is much less carryover cooking when you take the food out of the oven so it’s less likely to go from perfect to overcooked while it rests.* I know we were talking about meat, but my first thought was to adapt the method for fish. I really am a crazy genius sometimes – it works, but who’s thinking of fish when everyone else is talking about steak?


One of my favorite ways to eat leaner cuts of fish is to cook them “en papillote.” Not only does this satisfy my sounds-fancy-but-isn’t-difficult criteria, but it allows me to add some butter and flavor to the fish without worrying about burning things over high heat. En papillote literally translates to “in curlpapers” (yes, that means the little scraps of paper women used to curl their hair) but the cooking method calls for wrapping fish in parchment paper or tinfoil. Parchment makes prettier package but I don’t have it around very often and foil works just as well.


The fish I made for the pictures and the recipe I’m including uses tomato jam or chutney which is pretty widely available but I’ve also made it with other chutneys, Dijon mustard, and a heavily herb-infused butter. Miso butter would probably be delicious. It’s very easily adaptable since the fish doesn’t have an overly strong flavor.


There are still lots of things I don’t make at home either because of difficulty of preparation or time required, but at least I’ve crossed off home cooking fear. What are you afraid to cook at home?


Fish en papillote

The recipe is for one piece of fish but I usually make about three or four at a time.

4 oz piece of white, firm-fleshed, mild fish**
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tbs butter, softened
1 tbs tomato chutney (or other flavoring of your choice)
1 piece of foil or parchment, about 2x as long and wide as the fish

Preheat the oven to 225F. Soften the butter and using a small fork, mash it with the chutney in a small bowl until fully incorporated. Set this compound butter aside.***

Lay the fish on the foil/parchment and sprinkle both sides with salt, about ½ tsp on each side. Place the butter/chutney mixture on the middle of the fish. Bring the long sides of the foil together and fold them together. Then fold up the two short sides to make a package around the fish.

Place the package(s) on a baking pan, which will help to more evenly distribute heat on the bottom than the rack itself, and bake for about 15-20 minutes. After 15 minutes, unwrap the top of the package slightly to check the doneness of the fish. When it’s done the fish should be white, not opaque, and should feel firm to the touch. You can always stick a fork into the fish and flake it apart to check that it’s white all the way through. When the fish is done, lift it out of the foil gently with a spatula and pour the sauce over the top.

*Low-and-slow type cooking does have a significant drawback – it is hard to properly brown and crisp food using this method. But happily this isn’t much a problem for skinless fish since crisp for fish often means burnt.

**Most fish work here but don’t use an oily fish like mackerel or sardines.

***I often make a lot of this butter at once and keep it in the fridge to use on vegetables, stir into rice or couscous, or use it to flavor meat and chicken.

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