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.
- Keep things simple: the fish will take on the flavors of whatever else is in the packet, so choose complementary flavors.
- Don’t overcrowd: leave some room between the fish and the top of the packet for even steaming.
- Listen for the sizzle: as Mark Bittman writes, a good rule of thumb for foil packet fish is that it’ll be done about eight minutes after it starts sizzling. If you don’t hear the sizzle, you’ll need more time.
- Reach for quick-cooking vegetables and thinly sliced vegetables: you want them to be done at the same time as the fish. If using vegetables that require more cooking time (such as potatoes and butternut squash), cook them until just shy of tender before adding them to the packets.
- Carefully open one of the packets to check the fish for doneness. If it’s not ready, reseal it and continue cooking all of the packets.
- Use heavy-duty foil if you have it, but regular foil is fine, too. If it rips when you’re checking for doneness, tear off another sheet of foil and double wrap the packet for its remaining time in the oven.
Tilapia with Smoked Paprika Butter and Broccoli in Foil Packets
For smoked paprika butter:
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon Spanish smoked paprika
- finely grated zest from 1 small lemon (reserving juice for broccoli)
- 1 teaspoon whole-grain or Dijon mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
For rest of dish:
- 4 tilapia fillets, 6 ounces each
- kosher salt + freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 large (or 2 small) heads of broccoli (about 1 pound), cut or thinly sliced into very small florets, about 1/4 to 1/2-inch thick (about 4 heaping cups once chopped)
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice (from lemon you zested)
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- Optional sandwiches ideas:
- 4 large hoagie rolls, toasted or grilled
- good sandwich toppings include: mayo, roasted bell pepper, arugula, Bibb lettuce, pickled red onions, olive salad