Fish en Papillote, with Arugula Walnut Pesto & Lemon

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(Tilapia en Papillote, with Arugula Walnut Pesto and Lemon – recipes in post)

Cooking fish is easy. There – I said it! You just have to know how. If you’ve ever tried cooking fish and had it turn out dry and flavorless (and lets face it, most of us have at least once), than this is the method to use. Heck, even if you’re a pro, this technique is a must-have in the repertoire.

Cooking ‘en papillote’ literally means ‘in paper’. The fish is wrapped in parchment, sealed, and baked – effectively steaming it to a moist, tender finish. All of the flavorings and accompaniments are in the pouch along with the meat, imparting all kinds of flavor wonderfuls. It’s a rustic way to serve up a meal, but it’s also one of the most effective cooking methods. Foolproof and flavorful every time.

If you’re wondering just how easy it is, let me put it this way: I’m planning to make it for 20+ people at our upcoming engagement celebration. Catering? Pff – who needs it! I’ll make them fish!

Besides being easy to make, easy to clean up, and relatively inexpensive, this method is also very fast. Tilapia is fairly thin and quick-cooking, but other fish should work as well… just note that the cooking time will vary. You can also change up the other ingredients and seasonings as you like – from cajun spices, to basil, thyme, mint, parsley, cilantro… really, you can’t go wrong.

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Arugula Walnut Pesto

I chose to pair my fish with this arugula walnut pesto for a few reasons. First, it’s one of my favorite combos – bright and flavorful, but not overpowering. Second, it’s worlds cheaper than regular basil and pine-nut pesto. Also, one of our guests is allergic to basil, so that was out. When I knew I needed to look for another flavor option, this was the first thing to come to mind.

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This pesto is perfect for serving with fish, but works just as well atop pasta, mixed with chicken or shrimp, spread on a slice or rustic bread, or just about any other way you can think to use it.

Arugula Walnut Pesto
Makes about 1.5 cups

5 oz. (about 4-5 cups packed) baby arugula
1 cup walnuts, toasted
1 cup freshly grated parmesan or manchego cheese
8-10 cloves garlic, roasted*
3 TBSP fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/2-1 cup good quality extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. sea salt, or to taste
freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

*Roasting brings out all the warmth and sweetness of the garlic, and eliminates any harsh bite it may have when raw. You can find my tutorial on roasting garlic here: How To Roast Garlic. If you choose to skip this step, I suggest halving the amount to avoid bitterness.

       1. To roast the garlic, preheat oven to 400f.
Slice off the top of a whole bulb of garlic, revealing the cloves inside. Place the bulb in the center of a sheet of aluminum foil, and drizzle liberally with 2-3 TBSP olive oil. Fold the foil up around the garlic, creating a tightly sealed pouch.
Place the wrapped head of garlic on a baking tray, or into a muffin tin, and bake for 30-40 minutes. Allow the package to cool before opening – the garlic should be soft, fragrant, and golden brown. The cloves can be easily removed from the skin with a fork or tooth pic, or you can simply squeeze the bulb from the bottom like a tube of tooght paste.
       2. Meanwhile, toast the walnuts in a dry skillet over medium heat for 3-5 minutes, or until warm and flavorful.
       3. In the bowl of your food processor, add all ingredients except salt, pepper, and olive oil. Begin blending, and drizzle in the olive oil until the pesto has reached the consistency you want. I found 3/4 cup to be right for me, but you may want it thicker or thinner.
Season to taste with salt and pepper
       4. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week, or spoon into a clean ice-cube tray and freeze. I like to measure 1-2 TBSP per cube, so I know how much is in each. Once solid, remove cubes to a zip-top baggie and return to the freezer until ready to thaw and use.

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Tilapia en Pappillote, with Pesto and Lemon
Serves 4

4 tilapia filets
2 lemons, sliced
15-20 small cherry or grape tomatoes, halved*
4 TBSP pesto
2 TBSP olive oil
2-3 tsp. good quality white wine (plus more for drinking)
salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste
sprigs of fresh rosemary, thyme, cilantro, basil, or other herbs (optional)

*Feel free to use bell peppers, asparagus, or anything else you like instead of, or in addition to, the tomatoes.

       1. Preheat oven to 400f.
       2.On a large sheet of parchment paper, lay a few slices of lemons. On top, lay one filet of fish, and season with salt and pepper. Add about 1 TBSP of pesto, and top with a small handful of cherry tomatoes or other vegetables. Lay any herbs you like on top, drizzle lightly with olive oil, and add a small splash of wine (about a 1/2 tsp. or so – too much wine will break down the parchment paper).
       3. Fold the parchment into a pouch. First, lift the two lengthwise sides of parchment and bring them together above the fish. Fold both sides together, creasing them firmly. Fold them down again, and secure by pushing a couple of tooth pics through the fold somewhere near either end of the fish. Next, fold up one end of the parchment, and secure with a tooth pic. Repeat on the other side, creating an envelope around the fish. See photo below for a guide. Repeat steps 1-3 with the remaining ingredients, to make four envelopes.

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       4. Place the pouches on a rimmed baking sheet, and bake on the center rack for 15-20 minutes. If you aren’t sure if the fish is done, peak inside one of the pouches (carefully, watch out for steam) and poke the fish with a fork or tooth pic – it should be completely opaque, and flaky when touched.
       5. Remove from oven, and serve with a tall glass of white wine or sparkling sangria. Enjoy!

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The Fiancé walked in and was greeted by a still-steaming plate of tilapia being shoved into his hands.
“Here – hold this while I take a picture of it!” Really? How could I ask him to restrain himself.
Sitting down to eat, we were both impressed by how tender and melt-in-your mouth the meat was. Not to mention how flavorful! The pesto was strong, but didn’t overwhelm the delicate fish, and the tomatoes were like little bombs of sweetness bursting in our mouths. Light and healthy, but not lacking in any way. This will definitely be a regular on our menu!

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11 Responses to Fish en Papillote, with Arugula Walnut Pesto & Lemon

  1. Foodie Stuntman August 27, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

    I absolutely love cooking fish en papillote. It’s quick, easy and very flavorful, as you are well aware of by now. I’d actually secure the parchment on the sides in this manner because the steam could escape and I’ve also found that aluminum foil is easier to secure.

    • Willow August 27, 2012 at 7:20 pm #

      That does look like a good technique – I didn’t find steam escaping to be a problem, though. Held it in nice and tight, and was done right at the 15 minute mark. And I did think of using foil, but I try to avoid it whenever possible, espeically with acidic ingredients… I always worry about leeching chemicals and what-not. :P

  2. Sunday Morning Banana Pancakes August 27, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

    Such a perfect meal to serve to your guests- and the best part you can even serve it in the paper for that “rustic, yet I am so cool” feel, I mean if that’s what you are going for :)because that is what I would totally do (I hate dishes :))

    I will have to try out that Arugula Pesto – sounds amazing with some crusty bread and cherry tomatoes!

    • Willow August 27, 2012 at 7:20 pm #

      That IS exactly what I’m going for, haha! I do plan to serve it right on the parchment… I think it’s a nice look, honestly.

      And I hope you like the pesto – it’s one of my favorites!

    • Sunday Morning Banana Pancakes August 27, 2012 at 7:22 pm #

      Willow if we lived closer we totally would be besties! You HAVE to take pictures(pretty please!) of the table layout – I would love to see the whole table scape :) of your the “Rustic Elegance” Engagement Party!

    • Willow August 27, 2012 at 7:31 pm #

      There will definitely be photos (lots and lots of photos), but don’t get too excited… we’re having the party out at my mom’s house, which is a little small for what we’re doing, not to mention it’s a bit unfinished still. It will be wonderful, but no big hall or gorgeous long table scape.

  3. Eileen August 27, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

    I agree–fish en papillote is so easy, and so good! Love the pesto addition. :)

  4. Courtney J August 27, 2012 at 10:22 pm #

    I am emailing the link for this to my mom right now. She would LOVE this. She and dad are on a fish kick right now and I think she’d really like this technique. Looks delicious! Beautiful photos as always! *HUGS*

    • Willow August 28, 2012 at 12:02 am #

      Awesome – I hope she likes it! :)

  5. Katie Johnson February 8, 2013 at 10:33 pm #

    I think I’ve seen some of the recipes and foods here when I accompanied my sister in long island cause she’s picking out some good bridesmaid dress in several bridal shops in the city.

  6. Claire Graddy March 22, 2013 at 9:27 pm #

    Looks so yummy! I’ll make sure to send out a copy of it to my mom, especially it’s made out of fish. My mom is currently looking for good fish or seafood recipes cause she’s avoiding meat nowadays due to health reasons. Thanks for the lovely recipe, Willow!

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