Fish baked in parchment, also known as fish "en papillote," is a classical French technique for oven-steaming filets in a packet with aromatic ingredients. Any firm, white-fleshed fish can be cooked with this technique, including the affordable and widely available tilapia. The fish cooks quickly and with little-to-no added fat, resulting in a main course that is healthy, flavorful and elegant.
The most important piece of equipment to use when cooking fish in this manner is the paper -- specifically, parchment paper. Parchment paper is not true parchment, as its name indicates; rather, it's a nonstick cellulose product that can withstand the high heat of oven temperatures. It gets its name from its superficial resemblance to true parchment, which is traditionally made from lambskin and not used in cooking. Find parchment paper on the shelves of your grocery store near the foil and plastic wrap.
Add seasonings to the packet along with your tilapia filet. Try slices of lemon -- no need to squeeze -- or fennel, branches of fresh herbs such as rosemary, parsley or thyme, and members of the onion family, such as garlic, shallots or leeks. These aromatic ingredients lend their subtle perfume to the fish. You can add vegetables to the packet; they will steam and form their own side dish for the fish. Basically any vegetable that can cook quickly via steam heat can be added, such as diced fresh or sun-dried tomatoes, sliced or diced zucchini, carrots, asparagus, broccoli, green beans and bok choy. Choose two or three at most so as to keep the flavors distinct, and don't overstuff the packet. Don't forget a touch of salt and pepper to finish the dish.
Wrap the fish filet and its accompaniments in a sheet of parchment paper and seal the ends by folding them down. If you have kitchen twine, tie off the ends. Place the packets on a baking sheet and and toss them in the oven for a short time at high heat -- about 10 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit or above. In a pinch, you can use foil in place of cooking parchment. Do not, however, use a plain paper bag -- it's too permeable to air and water and too sensitive to heat; it could catch fire in the oven.
On the Side
Tilapia cooked in parchment is almost a complete meal in itself, needing perhaps only a scoop of rice or a loaf of crusty bread to sop up some of the juices released while cooking. Try a leafy green salad on the side to round out a casual, yet elegant, dinner. If you haven't included many vegetables in the paper packet itself, you may wish to offer a sauteed side of green beans, asparagus or snap peas. Whatever you choose, serve the packet unopened on an individual dinner plate and let your dinner guests open it themselves. It's sort of like unwrapping a gift for dinner; when opened, the packet releases a puff of mouthwatering steam and reveals a perfectly cooked filet of tilapia.
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