Parchment paper is an absolute multi-tasker in the kitchen. It stores leftovers, lines casseroles, prevents sticking and, when folded and sealed, steams fish and other quick-cooking foods -- a technique called "en papillote." Tightly folded edges make it work -- they keep the steam inside, where it gently coaxes the fillets to doneness. Serving is half the enjoyment of cooking en papillote, because the aroma from the vegetables and herbs steamed along with the tilapia wafts straight to the palate upon opening the packet. The fillets should measure between 1/2 and 3/4 inch thick. Your roll of parchment paper should measure 15 inches wide.
Prepare the Vegetables
Select one or two vegetables to cook with the tilapia. You can use any vegetable that, when sliced thin, will finish cooking at about the same time as the tilapia -- basically anything except starches, such as potatoes, or dried foods, such as uncooked beans. Carrots, asparagus, spinach, zucchini, peppers, mushrooms, lemons and tomatoes, for example, all work with tilapia's cooking time. Slice the vegetables about 1/4 inch thick and set them aside.
Start With Your Heart
Cut an 18-inch-long piece of parchment paper for each fillet. Fold the paper in half and cut a heart shape from it -- not unlike homemade Valentine's Day cards from elementary school. Cut the heart as large as possible so you have room to spare when you fold the edges.
Fill Your Heart
Open the parchment-paper heart on the work surface. Layer the sliced vegetables on one half of the heart, keeping them at least 3 or 4 inches from the edge and 1 or 2 inches from the center crease. Don't build the layer of vegetables more than 1/4 to 1/2 inch high. Next, lay the tilapia fillet on top of the vegetables. Season the tilapia to taste with kosher salt and pepper and, if desired, a teaspoon or so of lemon juice or vinaigrette -- only use a scant amount, because too much liquid makes the paper soggy. Top the fillets with fresh herbs and little butter or olive oil for flavor.
Seal the Deal
Fold the other side of the parchment paper heart over the tilapia and vegetables. Starting at what's now the top-left corner of the paper, make a series of overlapping, firmly creased folds until you reach the bottom. Keep the folds about 1 to 2 inches wide -- the closer the folds, the tighter the seal. It takes about 10 to 12 folds to seal a parchment packet of this size. Make sure the folds all face upward so no liquid leaks down and out.
Finish With a Flourish
You can cook tilapia en papillote two ways: In the microwave or in the oven. Surprisingly, you don't lose much quality when you microwave en papillote -- so if that's your style, zap the tilapia on High for 4 minutes. If the oven suits you better, bake the tilapia on a sheet pan for 15 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. You can grill en papillote, too -- you won't get much barbecue flavor, but the parchment will puff just like in the oven. The grill can't be hotter than 425 F, however. Wait about one minute before you open the packets so the steam dissipates -- when they start to lose their puffiness, you're good to go. Check the the center of the filet with an instant-read food thermometer for a temperature of 145 F before serving.
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