This Easy Foil Packet Tilapia is One of My Dad’s Signature Recipes
When I reflect on the favorite dishes of my childhood, my mind usually wanders to recipes my mom or grandmother cooked for me, like lasagna, shepherd’s pie, eggplant Parm, or pierogi. Not often do I think of my father, although that’s not to say he doesn’t ever cook.
You see, for much of my life, I’ve lived at least 500 miles away from my dad. My parents divorced when I was 10, and my younger sister and I moved with our mom to New Jersey, where she found a job. Our dad settled in North Carolina, a nine-hour car ride or one-hour flight away. We spent most of our time with him during holidays and summer breaks, but the long distance between us meant I missed out on making everyday memories with him.
That’s not to say we didn’t make meaningful memories when we were together. Our dad always did his best to maximize fun time, which often meant traveling to new places. The first time I rode a rollercoaster was with him at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, where we stopped for a night on the long drive between homes one summer. He took us to see Brad Paisley play at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville before anyone knew who the country singer was. We spent a week in Myrtle Beach, where the tide was so strong the ocean nearly swallowed my sister, Lindsay, before our dad ran into the water to pull her out. All of these trips, of course, involved more dining out at restaurants than cooking at home.
However, there is one recipe that will always remind me of him: foil-packet tilapia.
When I was around 13 or 14, my mom had to leave town for a week, possibly for a business trip. My dad came to stay with us in our New Jersey home, where he was the one who made sure we did our homework and got to school on time, and, of course, that we were fed.
I’ll admit, I sometimes used to imagine my dad in North Carolina as a single bachelor, eating sad TV dinners alone at home. But he surprised me one night by quickly and easily whipping up dinner for us, showing me how to cook something for the first time: tilapia baked in a foil pouch. It wasn’t a complicated dinner, but it stuck with me.
My mom has never liked fish, and has always said she’s allergic to it (although I think what she really means is she has a taste aversion to it). So until this night, I had no experience with how to cook it myself. I watched as my dad took the tilapia filets out of the fridge and pulled a few tomatoes off the vine. “Where do you keep the aluminum foil, Shelbs?” he asked. I pointed to the drawer next to our stove, then directed him to the spice cabinet when he asked about those next.
During our long drives between New Jersey and North Carolina, I often served as his co-pilot, looking for alternative routes on maps (yes, the giant paper ones that you used to keep in your car) when we hit traffic as my sister snoozed in the back seat. In our kitchen, I easily stepped into the sous-chef role, dicing up tomatoes and slicing lemons as he asked, cutting foil into equal rectangular shapes, and preheating the oven.
Together, we assembled the foil packs — tilapia seasoned with salt, pepper, and paprika, topped with a layer of thin lemon slices and diced tomatoes — and into the oven they went. We ate the fish with rice and steamed green beans, clinking our water glasses together as a cheers to our dad.
Years later, as a college student with no idea how to cook for myself, I’d think back on my dad making us tilapia that night, and feel inspired to do it myself. I’ve come back to this simple and affordable recipe time and again, grateful to have a go-to dinner in my back pocket that doesn’t require much in the way of a stocked pantry or full wallet.
Recently, I made the foil-packet tilapia for me and my boyfriend, thinking of my dad each step of the way. I sent him a photo of our dinner before we ate, and asked him if he remembered showing me how to make it all those years ago. “Of course I do,” he responded. “And now you’re making me hungry.”
For so many years, I felt distant from my dad — sometimes emotionally, sometimes geographically — but no matter where I am, this simple tilapia recipe always reminds me that he was and always will be present in my life.
Prep time 15 minutes
Cook time 15 minutes
medium tomato (about 6 ounces)
- 6 sprigs
(about 6-ounce) tilapia fillets
- 1 tablespoon
- 1/2 teaspoon
- 1/4 teaspoon
- 1/8 teaspoon
freshly ground black pepper
Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 400ºF. Prepare 2 (about 16-inch long) sheets of aluminum foil.
Thinly slice 1 medium lemon and remove any seeds. Dice 1 medium tomato (about 1 cup). Pick the leaves from 6 freshly parsley sprigs and coarsely chop until you have about 2 tablespoons. Reserve the parsley for garnish.
Place 1 tilapia fillet across the center of each sheet of foil. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Season with 1/2 teaspoon paprika, 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/8 teaspoon black pepper.
Place 3 to 4 slices of lemon over each piece of fish, overlapping them as needed. Top with the tomatoes.
Fold all the sides of the foil over to almost completely cover the fish and toppings, leaving a small opening in the middle to help release steam. Place the packets on a rimmed baking sheet.
Bake until the fish is cooked through and easily flakes when poked with a fork, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer to plates and carefully open the pouches, being careful of the steam. Garnish with the reserved parsley.
Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days.