Mackerel is another food that was off the grid for me until coming to the UK. In the category of small oily fish like anchovies and herrings, it’s loaded with omega-3, it’s sustainable, it’s cheap… but this isn’t a sales pitch because it’s tasty enough to sell itself. It’s a shame that cultural traditions and psychological routines keep people coming back to overfished species like cod and haddock time and again; I’m not denying the beer-battered satisfaction of a flaky white cod fillet, but it’s worth considering the longterm impact on marine ecosystems and even your own wallet. It is, of course, more complicated than simply stating what’s “sustainable” and what’s not, so you can read more about that here. WELL, a way to a reader’s heart is more likely through their eyes and stomachs than a preachy paragraph!
On with the recipe.
“En papillote” is the French technique of steaming parchment-encased food inside a convection oven. Most iconic is Pompano en Papillote, which originated in a New Orleans restaurant called Antoine’s. It was served at a banquet celebrating Brazilian balloonist Alberto Santos-Dumont (that’s aviation ballooning, not clown ballooning), with the idea of mimicking a balloon with the steam-puffed parchment parcel. Of course, Creole cuisine is strongly influenced by French traditions, which you might recall from my previous post on Louisiana Red Beans & Millet.
It sounds fancy, but it couldn’t be simpler than wrapping up a bunch of good ingredients, adding a splash of liquid, and throwing it into the oven for a short period of time. It steams the food in its own vaporised juices, trapping all the flavour and nutrients within the parcel. You can do this with most foods, but fish is often used with “en papillote” because it cooks rather quickly.
Steamers have been used in Chinese cuisine for thousands of years, so I’m familiar with steaming seafoods, meats, grains, eggs, and even bread (as opposed to vegetables, which is more common in Western cuisine). It’s an extremely effective yet gentle method of cooking, transferring heat energy via conduction and convection—in other words, the food cooks due to direct contact with water vapour as well as the upwards motion of the vapour. While boiling can leech away the good stuff (particularly folic acid and vitamin C), steaming preserves the food’s nutrients, flavour, and shape more successfully.
This dish is a good example of that! Usually flaky white fish are preferred for “en papillote,” but I find that the acidity of lemons and capers cut through the oily mackerel perfectly. Ginger and lemongrass give it a light, clean fragrance while the soy gives it a punch of umami; plus, I thought the flavour profile an appropriate homage to long-standing Asian steaming tradition.
Mackerel en Papillote
- 1 mackerel, butterflied
- salt and pepper
- ½ red onion, sliced thinly in rounds
- 1 scallion, whites halved lengthwise, greens sliced thinly
- ½ stalk lemongrass, halved lengthwise and bashed
- ½ inch ginger, sliced
- ½ lemon, juice of
- 1 t soy sauce
- 1 T capers
Preheat oven to 200ºC and prepare your parchment parcel; fold a large sheet of parchment paper in half, then cut the paper so that it roughly forms a heart shape when unfolded. This will also work with foil, but avoid using acidic ingredients like lemon juice that might corrode and give off a metallic taste.
Arrange the sliced onions, scallion whites, ginger, and bruised lemongrass in the centre of one half. Rub your fish fillets with salt and pepper before arranging skin-down on the bed of vegetables. Top with scallion greens and a spattering of capers before adding a final drizzle of soy sauce and squeeze of fresh lemon to keep the fish moist.
Bring the other half of your parchment paper heart over the fish and, starting from one end, begin tightly folding the open edges of the paper—bit by bit—until the fish is sealed inside. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet and cook for 8-10 minutes, depending on the thickness of your fish.