June 13, 2012

Tilapia Pouches with Squash and Tomato

I'm pretty terrible at cooking fish.  Every time I cook it on the stove, it breaks apart.  Things are doubly bad on the grill.  It's a delicate meat, and I am not a delicate cook.  For a long time, my solution to this problem was the easiest one;  I didn't cook fish.  Of course, I could have just banged away at it, and I'm sure I would have gotten a handle on it soon enough, but while Wife is tolerant of the average screw-up in the kitchen, she isn't enough of a fish fan to try faulty flounder.  Not wanting to ruin everyone's dinner, I stayed away from fish each time I went to the store, at least since my attempt at crispy battered cod the summer before last turned into a paste that smelled like cat's breath.  I like a good piece of fish, but not enough to face down a horde of angry diners when I'm not on point. 

At least not until I heard about pouch cooking.  I was familiar with it from camping, of course, but somehow I'd never made the logical leap to the oven.

If you're not aware, you can cook any number of meats and/or vegetables together in sealed foil pouches; providing you've found the right balance of ingredients, they will come out of the oven as little bundles of perfectly cooked individual dinner portions, steamy and aromatic.

Tilapia Pouches (Serves 4)

I decided to go with tilapia for two reasons; it's inexpensive, and its mild taste would allow it to carry the flavor of the vegetables without overshadowing them.  On my counter I arranged eight equal squares of tin foil into four piles of two.  The two pieces of foil per chunk of fish was recommended by more than one site as a way to create better insulation and provide sturdier packaging for the food, so I decided this step would be a good one for my meal.  After lightly misting all of the top sheets with cooking spray, I placed a 4 oz. tilapia filet (seasoned amply with salt and pepper) in the center of each one.  Then I set the oven to 425 degrees and moved on to assembling my relish. 

One of the great things about pouches is that they are similar to making a stew in that you can pretty much toss in whatever complementary flavors you have on hand.  In this instance, the ingredients I used were carefully selected to go together, but I could easily see myself making variations on this meal improvisation-ally.  In this instance, I used the following:
The proper selection of vegetables should add lots of flavor to the fish, but be fine to eat on its own.

1 C. Grape tomatoes, quartered.
1 C. Butternut squash, diced small.
1 C. Red onion, thinly sliced.
1/4 C. Black olives, thinly sliced.
2 T. Honey-ginger balsamic vinegar*.
1 T. Olive oil.  
2 t. Oregano.
1/2 t. Crushed red pepper.

* The balsamic vinegar I used in this recipe was a gift from my mother-in-law, from a local manufacturer in Burley, Idaho.  While the honey and ginger added to the overall quality of the final dish, you should be fine using a plain balsamic, or possibly even lemon juice.  The acidity is the most important part of this ingredient, as its taste can be accounted for in other ways with a little tinkering.

I just mixed these things together in a bowl, making sure the oil and vinegar coated everything, and then divided the vegetables evenly over the top of the pieces of fish.  Once each chunk of tilapia was topped, I folded up the edges of each packet, making sure to crimp the edges so as to trap steam inside, and tossed them into the oven for twenty five minutes.

The fish will flake apart perfectly. 
This was a really simple preparation and it came out beautifully.  Wife, as is her nature, declared it lacking in salt, but Boy and Girl both thought it was the best fish dish they'd ever eaten.  I served it alongside our favorite grain, quinoa, which I'd made with chicken stock instead of water.  Furthermore, as I removed the pot from heat to steam, I added (to a typical four-serving portion of quinoa) 2 teaspoons each capers and golden raisins, as well as a tablespoon of lemon juice and a half a cup of spinach.  This side went really well with the fish and vegetables, and instead of ending up with a crumbly mess of seafood, we enjoyed a great summer meal that I will definitely find myself making again.

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