Mackerel en Papillote

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.

Mackerel en Papillote

“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.

Mackerel en Papillote

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.

Mackerel en Papillote

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.

Mackerel en Papillote

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

Mackerel en Papillote
(serves 1)

  • 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.

Mackerel en Papillote

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29 Responses to Mackerel en Papillote

  1. I always forget about fish. It’s just not on my radar when I’m thinking of what to make for dinner. This little packet looks so easy and delicious though, I’ll have to make a mental note :)

    • wandercrush says:

      I know what you mean, especially when you have to find a good fishmonger to source from. But sometimes I just get a massive protein craving that all the lentils and quinoa in the world can’t fix!

  2. Great minds think alike! We made en papilotte too! Yours looks so mouth-watering and I love the exotic ingredients :)

  3. En papillote is one of my very favorite ways to cook, it’s so simple but flavorful.

  4. Hannah says:

    Looks so delicate and fresh. I love the combo of flavours you used! Elegance in a parcel! :)

  5. Joanne says:

    I’ve never had mackerel either but it seems like you prepared it in such a lovely, flavorful way!

  6. Fish steamed is my favorite way to eat it!

  7. Love this method of cooking fish! Reminds me, i haven’t used it in quite some time. Lovely photos!

  8. Sissi says:

    Irina, I don’t know how many salmons en papillote I have seen on blogs and cooking websites, so it’s such a relief to see finally a fish I love. To be frank, I simply don’t like cod. When I was a child cod was THE cheap fish and I had it all the time, so now when I see it served in a fancy restaurant, costing a fortune… it feels ridiculous and the smell reminds me instantly of a cheap fish from my childhood. Apart from tuna and monkfish, most fish species I love are small and cheap (sardine, mackerel, horse mackerel and I am crazy for the tiny fish deep-fried and eaten whole like chips…). Personally, I think the authorities simply shouldn’t allow fishing and selling whatever is not labelled MSC or in danger. Same applies to cruelty on animal farms. It should be simply forbidden.
    Your papillote with mackerel, ginger and lemon grass sounds so good, I feel like fish cooking tonight! I also agree it’s more adapted to oily fish. Time to go and buy mackerel!

    • wandercrush says:

      Yes Sissi, too true… there are unfortunately too many things that should be “simply forbidden,” as you said. Anyway, it’s good to focus on making tiny differences in our own kitchen, which seems like more of a privilege than a challenge when it comes to small oily fish that can be fried and eaten whole!
      As usual, thanks very much for the thoughtful insight! I always look forward to your comments.

  9. What a beautiful dish, I love the photos! I have never tried that cooking technique, but I bet it seals in moisture beautifully. I need to try it the next time I make a low-oil fish in the oven, as I usually end up frying mine in oil which is definitely not as healthy haha

    • wandercrush says:

      Cheers, Eva! Yeah, definitely give it a go; it’s so easy and effective that you’ll probably end up feeling silly for not discovering it earlier, much like myself. Better late than never!

  10. shuhan says:

    Oh come on, this looks pretty snazz! Definitely exciting ;) I love mackerel in any form really, en papillote is good because it’s so mess-free; this is completely up my alley, yum!

    • wandercrush says:

      Cheeeeers, Shu Han! Not quite as snazzy as otak otak ;) Hahah but yes, definitely a classic faux-fancy trick for student cooking—seems elaborate but couldn’t be simpler or cheaper!

  11. Helena says:

    What a nice way to prepare mackerel ! I love fishes in papillote but don’t ask me why, I never thought of using mackerel. But I’m sure it is quite highlighted with these fresh, humble yet flavorful ingredients (even if i would never have thought of associating capers or red onion with ginger and lemongrass !). Can’t wait to try it !

    • wandercrush says:

      Cheers Helena! Yes true, it’s not the most usual flavour combination but it worked really well here; the rich oiliness of the fish and fragrant ginger/lemongrass is cut through well with the sharpness of capers and red onion, which get slightly pickled in the lemon juices. I really hope you enjoy it!

  12. Caz says:

    This looks fantastic. I love mackerel and I don’t eat nearly enough fish. I’ve never tried mackerel this way but I’m definitely going to now.

  13. I love fish en papillote! Never tried it with mackerel, though – great idea! Super post – thanks so much.

    • wandercrush says:

      Thanks for such a lovely comment, John! Yeah it isn’t a popular method when it comes to small oily fish, but it’s definitely worth a try. Less delicate flakiness for more rich flavour is a good trade-off, in my opinion :)

  14. I don’t think I’ve ever tried mackerel before, at least not that I can remember. As much as I like to try new foods, the temptation is always to go back to the familiar.
    Love the picture of the red onion. It really looks like a piece of art.

  15. Most delicious en Papillote I have seen to date! What a gorgeous fish. Love your flavor combinations. Hope you are doing well!!

  16. sarah says:

    sensational, as always!

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