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I love the rhythm of the seasons, yet I’m caught off guard every single fall by how much busier and more structured life gets when school starts and work commitments intensify. During the week, I almost instinctively reach for my sheet pan for roasting some combination of vegetables and protein for dinner, or fall back on standard sandwiches for autumn gatherings. But there’s another simple option, one that I invariably forget about: fish cooked in foil packets. If there’s anything better than dirtying just one pan, it’s dirtying zero pans.
A complete dinner in a mess-free pouch. Brilliant. Photo by Julia Gartland
Foil packet cooking is one of the easiest, most foolproof ways to prepare fish. The technique is simple: wrap fish and complementary ingredients in individual foil packets and bake them in a hot oven (or grill them over hot grates). The fish gently cooks in its own steam, and the flavors meld and intensify. It’s a forgiving technique, too—a few minutes too long in a foil packet is no big deal, very different from direct heat cooking, which requires more attention and precision. It’s similar to cooking en papillote with parchment, but I find foil packets are easier to crimp and tightly seal (and to reseal if you need to return them to the oven).
Recipes for foil packet fish are plentiful, but I’m partial to this Tilapia with Smoked Paprika Butter and Broccoli. It’s a flavor combination inspired by another go-to recipe of mine: Roasted Sausage, Chard, and Cannellini Beans. Tilapia is a good choice because its firm, lean fillets cook evenly and quickly in foil packets. From there, butter spiked with smoked paprika and grainy mustard is smeared all over the tilapia, and thinly sliced broccoli is tucked in the packet. The butter not only boldly flavors, it’s gorgeous against the tilapia’s white, flaky flesh.
Even better, the ingredients in the foil packets can be easily changed up—for example, slip in shaved fennel or strips of roasted red pepper with the broccoli, or swap out the broccoli for thinly sliced Brussels sprouts, kale, chard, or spinach. In the summer months, thinly sliced zucchini and cherry tomatoes would be lovely additions. The smoked paprika butter is versatile, too. Don’t have smoked paprika? Use other spices (such as a BBQ spice rub, sweet chile flakes, or curry powder)—and sneak in some fresh herbs if you want.
Whichever way you go, the foil packets can be assembled in advance, and then baked or grilled to serve. Want a new idea for a cook-out or tailgating party? Tote the prepped packets in your cooler, and effortlessly throw them on the grill with one hand, drink in the other. They’ll be a most welcome addition to the typical burgers, brats, and wings. Serve the fish and vegetables straight out of the foil packet, or tuck them into a toasted roll for a surprisingly good sandwich (see my recipe for a few sandwich ideas). If there’s no shortage of sides at your party, skip the broccoli and let the tilapia and butter shine on their own.
From pretty parcel to perfect sammy in no time. Photo by Julia Gartland
The options are pretty much limitless. Here are a few things to keep in mind when making this recipe, or your own variation.
For smoked paprika butter:
For rest of dish: