People find cooking fish intimidating. It’s the increased pressure of fish’s relatively quick cook time. It’s the processing that’s sometimes required. Gutting, scaling or filleting at home is bound to be unfamiliar to most people who aren't professional or hobby fishers or contestants on Masterchef Australia - all of whom seem instinctively to know what to do with a whole fish. It’s that a lot of fish and seafood, especially that which is available to purchase already processed, is relatively expensive. Want to guess how many times I’ve purchased scallops just to figure out how to cook them? Never. I've never bought scallops because I'm too afraid to waste the money if I don't cook them successfully. Choosing to cook something expensive is risky when you aren’t sure what to do with it and you don't have an unlimited budget.
There’s also the idea of the “chickenization” of the proteins we consume. Perhaps we’ve become so used to the boneless skinless shapeless lumps of protein available to us in supermarkets and the sanitized standardized experience of cooking proteins in the form of these “units” - closer to abstract theoretical concepts of outputs like widgets, or thingamagigs and whoosie whatsies than parts of once living animals - that we feel averse to breaking down an animal in any way that requires us to confront its animalness.
In any case, most North Americans eat far less fish and seafood than other proteins. Two thirds of the fish we do eat, we eat at restaurants, rather than cook it ourselves, and we stick to the few species we are most familiar with like shrimp and salmon. This has negative implications for the environment as a fraction of the seafood species we have available to us are overfished while the rest go untouched.
There are plenty of reasons to remedy this situation, from health benefits to eating more sustainably to personal interest in food and cooking. I don’t like having a fish-shaped gap in my cooking knowledge, and attempting unfamiliar things is the only way to learn, so I’ve been slowly building up my fish-cooking skills for some time. For example, this salmon soup that uses a fish head to make stock that, while intimidating, turned out to be surprisingly easy to make. Plus, it just makes good sense. Fish and seafood make for potentially quick and easy meals, once you get the hang of using them, and some of the less common species and forms, like cooking a whole fish (a feat I’ve yet to attempt), can be the easiest to use and least expensive.
A far more entry-level method of cooking fish is the French technique of cooking it en papillote – which just means “in parchment.” You simply layer your ingredients on a piece of parchment paper, fold the edges around them to create an enclosed parcel and cook the parcels on a baking sheet in the oven. It makes a beautiful presentation and the parcels can be assembled ahead of time and kept in the fridge until you are almost ready to eat.
This recipe was inspired by one that can be found in Diana Henry’s latest cookbook From the Oven to the Table that uses Asian flavours and ingredients – miso, bok choy and mushrooms. My version borrows her fish-cooking technique, but switches up the flavours. I wanted to maintain the saltiness of the miso, but using more European flavours, so decided on anchovy. Most recipes I’ve seen for fish en papillote instruct you to seal the parcels completely, so that the fish steams inside. Diana Henry’s recipe leaves a gap in the top of the parcel. I’ve gone with that technique here because I like that it allows you to check the doneness of the fish without ruining the parcel, which is great for nervous fish-cookers like me; especially useful because the cook time will depend somewhat on the type of fish you use and the thickness of your fillets. I don’t know if this means that, technically, this fish is not “en papillote,” and I don’t know if the fish is still technically steaming, but I do know that it makes for an easy and delicious quick dinner, that cooks almost an entire meal in the parcel – just add rice or potatoes and serve.
CUSTOMIZE THE RECIPE
I think of this recipe as more of a template than a rigid set of instructions; it’s endlessly customizable. Mix and match with whatever fish, greens and beans you have on hand.
- Fish – Any firm white fleshed fish will work well here. I’ve used halibut, but you could also use something like cod or haddock.
- Greens – You can use any leafy greens you have (though I wouldn’t bother with crisp or delicate lettuces like iceberg or little gem. I like to use substantial greens that can stand up to longer cooking times like kale, chard or collards, but quicker cooking spinach works as well if it's all you have.
- Beans – Use any beans you have on hand. I prefer the milder navy beans with this flavour combination, but I’ve used chickpeas as well (as you can see pictured). Canned beans are fine, especially if that is all you have. But I find the best way to make this is with leftover cooked beans. Twice-cooking the beans leaves them with a creamier texture than the canned beans get. I’ve been cooking up a batch of beans in my instant pot almost every week lately (using these instructions from Simply Recipes), so there are always beans on hand ready to use, and I highly recommend it.
- Sauce – The sauce I’ve used here is an anchovy butter sauce. The recipe calls for anchovy paste, which is convenient to use if you have it, but might be hard to find. You could substitute a few chopped up canned anchovy filets. You could also leave out the anchovy if you don’t like it, for a milder sauce. To compensate for the lost flavour, I'd use more of the olives and capers.
Fish en Papillote with Beans, Greens & Anchovy Butter Sauce
Delicate white fish with greens, hearty creamy beans, dressed in a sauce with deep umami and salty flavour from the anchovies, briny olives and capers and finished with bright citrusy lemon. A quick and easy meal, almost everything cooked together in the oven in individual parcels. Just add rice or potatoes - mashed, roasted or baked whole - and serve.
For the Anchovy Butter Sauce
- 4 tablespoons butter, melted
- 1 tablespoon anchovy paste (could also use one canned anchovy filet, bones removed & finely chopped)
- 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 clove garlic, grated
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
For the Fish Parcels
- Parchment paper, cut into 4 rectangles, about 13” x 9”
- A bit of olive oil, for brushing parchment
- 1 pound cooked navy beans (or 1 can) (I used chickpeas in the photos, but I prefer the milder taste of white beans for this recipe. Use whatever beans you have, either canned or leftovers.)
- Several handfuls (about 120g) of greens (like collards, kale or spinach), stems removed & cut into quarters
- ¼ cup green olives, pitted and chopped
- 4 fillets of firm white-fleshed fish (I use halibut, but you could also use cod or haddock, just be sure to adjust the cooking time)
- ½ lemon, cut into thin slices
- Preheat oven to 375F.
- In a small bowl, add the melted butter, anchovy paste, white wine vinegar, lemon juice, garlic and parsley. Whisk to combine and set aside.
- Lay out the parchment rectangles and brush the middle of each with oil. Dividing between each parchment rectangle, spread the beans out roughly in the shape of the fish fillets (so that the long sides of the parchment paper will run parallel to the long sides of the fish), then layer on the greens and top with half of the olives.
- Spoon 1 tablespoon of the anchovy butter sauce on each pile of vegetables and top with the fish fillets. Divide the rest of the anchovy butter sauce between the parcels, spooning it over the tops of the fish. (If this is too messy, wait until you fold the parcels and then spoon the rest of the anchovy butter inside). Sprinkle remaining olives over the fish and finish each parcel with a few lemon slices.
- Fold the parchment paper around the fish and vegetables to make 4 little parcels. This doesn’t need to be perfect, as long as the ingredients are contained in the parchment and there is a gap at the top of the parcel. I fold in the long sides up around the fish, leaving a small gap, and then fold in the short sides, tucking the ends of the short sides underneath the parcels. If you don’t want to be bothered fiddling with this, you could use foil instead – though they won’t be as pretty for serving.
- Arrange parcels on a baking sheet and cook until the centre of the fish reaches 145F, the flesh is no longer translucent and is easily flaked with a fork - about 20 minutes. (The timing will vary, depending on the fish you used and the thickness of the fillets. Use a meat thermometer and start checking the fish for doneness after 10-15 minutes).
- Serve with rice, or baked, roasted or mashed potatoes.
Recipe inspired by: Salmon Fillets with Miso, Shitakes & Bok Choy from From the Oven to the Table by Diana Henry