Flounder with Spinach, Sweet Potatoes & Coconut-Curry Sauce

Thirteen years ago, here on The Blog, Andy wrote about “fish presents” after discovering that the recipe was a sneaky way to market the meal to young seafood skeptics. This is how he described the dinner back in 2010, when our daughters were 6 and 8:

Our latest venture in rebranding involved the kind of intimidating-sounding fish en papillote, which is just a fancy way of saying fish steamed in parchment paper. Neither description had a chance of flying with our kids. So we came up with something a little more intriguing. (Notice I did not say misleading.) Fish Presents, is what we decided on. Tonight we’re having fish presents! “Presents?” they asked. I gave them no further information.

When I read this back, I have two questions. The first: Where TF does time go? The second: Why has it been so long since I’ve made fish presents? They are exactly the kind of dinner I’m always in the mood for, but especially so on a winter weekend like last one, where the “official” grieving period for my dad was behind me and I was craving a comforting, nourishing, and above all, low-stress dinner. Fish en papillote might actually be the most low-stress fish cooking method out there — you just wrap up a piece of fish in parchment paper or foil (I used flounder, but other favorites are salmon, sole, cod, trout, snapper) alongside aromatics and vegetables (here: ginger, shallots, lime slices, sweet potatoes and spinach), place everything on a baking sheet, and 20 minutes later you have the tenderest, flakiest, hard-to-overcookiest fish you’ve ever made. A pot of rice and a drizzle sauce can be cheffed up (or not) while your fish bakes, the perfect dance. 

The en papillote steaming process creates its own delicate sesame-ginger-and-shallot-infused jus, but no one will fault you for making a separate coconut-curry drizzle sauce to next-level the whole operation.

Steamed Flounder with Spinach, Sweet Potatoes & Coconut-Curry Sauce

As written, this serves two, but it scales up and down very easily. If you are serving four, double it. If you are serving one (this is a great meal for just one), halve everything. Also, feel free to experiment with the vegetables you include with the fish, keeping in mind that thicker vegetables (potatoes, bok choy, Brussels sprouts) require either paper-thin slicing or par-boiling before you wrap them up with the fish. Here, I tried to skip par-boiling the potatoes, slicing them on a mandolin, but I found that the edges of the potatoes not covered by the fish still didn’t cook through entirely. So make sure you either slice those potatoes SUPER PAPER THIN and bury them under the fish OR par-boil to play it safe. Instructions below. SERVES 2

Fish Packets & Rice

1 small sweet potato (about 8 to 10 ounces) sliced paper thin, preferably on a mandolin
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 handfuls baby spinach
4 tablespoons olive oil
Two 6-to-8 ounce flounder filets (about 12 to 16 ounces total), the freshest you can find
1 shallot, sliced very thin into rounds
1 lime, part of it sliced into four very thin rounds (save what’s left for squeezing into rice) 
1/2-inch piece ginger, peeled and sliced into very thin coins
Toasted sesame oil
Red chiles, cilantro, chives (optional)
3/4 cup uncooked long-grain rice such as jasmine or basmati

Coconut-Curry Sauce (makes a little less than 1 cup)

3/4 cup canned coconut milk (about 1/2 of a 15-ounce can)
1 tablespoon red curry paste, such as Thai Kitchen brand
1 tablespoon smooth peanut butter
1 1/2 teaspoons light brown sugar
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
kosher salt

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Par-boil potatoes (see headnote): Add potato slices to a medium pot and cover with water. Add a generous pinch of salt to the water. Bring to a boil and cook for 3 minutes. Drain potatoes in a strainer and run cold water over them. Return the pot to the stovetop — you’ll make rice in it so you don’t have to wash it.

Make Fish Wraps: You’ll need one 15-by-13-inch piece of parchment paper or aluminum foil per filet. In the center of each piece of parchment, lay out a “bed” of sweet potato slices, overlapping slightly, then top with a handful of spinach leaves. Drizzle each with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper, then top each vegetable pile with a piece of fish. 

On top of each fish, add the shallot (divided evenly), 2 lime slices, and ginger slices (divided evenly), salt and pepper, another tablespoon of olive oil, and a few dashes of sesame oil. Lift up the sides of the parchment paper until they meet above the fish. Turn down a few times and fold the ends under the fish — picture the way the deli guy wraps a sandwich — creating a seal so the steam doesn’t escape. Place the presents onto a cookie sheet, and bake for 20 minutes. (It’s hard to overcook the fish when steaming it like this.) 

Make Rice: Rinse rice in a strainer then prepare rice in the medium pot according to package directions. When finished, add salt to taste, and squeeze in juice from the remaining lime half. Toss.

Make Sauce: To a small saucepan set over medium-low heat, add coconut milk, curry paste, peanut butter, salt, brown sugar, and vinegar. Stir gently until everything warms and becomes integrated, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside until ready to use. (It does not have to be warm when serving.)

Serve: Remove the fish packets from the oven, and open very carefully. (The steam will be hot.) Slide the contents of the packet onto dinner plates (and drizzle any jus that has collected in the packet) alongside a few scoops of rice and, using a fork, remove the lime and ginger slices to the side. Drizzle everything with two or three spoonfuls of coconut-curry sauce — be judicious, it’s delicious but a little goes a long way. Garnish with chiles, cilantro, or chives if using.

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