Fish al Cartoccio

The saga of this recipe started back in February, when we rented a car and went to Whole Foods. Whole Foods is like a wonderland to me. We don’t have one in Salem, so it’s like a special treat to go somewhere that isn’t Roth’s or Safeway, and even more so when it’s a grocery store that has all kinds of fun specialty ingredients that I can’t find anywhere in Salem. I wander around with stars in my eyes and Jeremy tries to make me focus long enough to stop marveling at wonders like chestnut puree and broccoli raab, and figure out what we are actually going to be eating. On this occasion, we were oohing and aahing over the fish counter, and Jeremy pointed out some whole silk snappers with big shiny googly eyes. I conceded that, yes, they looked very fresh and lovely, and somehow, before I could account for it, he had talked me into cooking one. By the time the fishmonger wrapped it up and handed it over, I was already quaking with fear.

Fish in general makes me nervous, because I can’t handle unexpected or hard object in my meats. Bones and gristle freak me out, but big pork chop bones or chicken bones are much easier to spot and avoid than fish bones. I tend to eat fish in very small bites because of the terrifying possibility of getting a fish bone in my mouth. Even without swallowing it, the feeling (or, to be honest, sometimes even the thought) of a fish bone or scale inadvertently placed in my mouth is enough to make me feel a little sick. So a whole fish was way out of my comfort zone, by miles. I was out there in no-man’s land with the barbed wire and landmines.

I decided to make things a bit easier on myself by baking the fish al cartoccio, like I had seen demonstrated on Molto Mario. You put the whole fish, sans fins, in a parchment paper or foil packet with some aromatics and a bit of liquid, and it basically steams in the oven. Because freshness is so important with seafood, I had to swallow the big lump in my throat quickly and get on with the cooking. So I had Jeremy, my sous chef, cut off the fins for me, added some olive oil, white wine, salt, pepper, sliced garlic, and some fresh herbs, wrapped it all up in parchment, and popped it in the oven. Turns out it was incredibly easy to cook. Once it was in the oven, I made up a pot of quinoa pilaf, and the fish was ready before the grains were. The fish was very moist and tender, and quite tasty, though we weren’t entirely sure how to go about getting the fillets off the fish without getting a ton of bones. Jeremy managed it in the end, though I still took teeny tiny bites just to be on the safe side. The idea of cooking and eating a whole fish still kind of squicked me out in general, though; I have a hard time with dinners that can look back at me. I’m a delicate flower, after all.

Last night we made fish al cartoccio again, this time with a fresh whole trout I got at Safeway, weighing just over a pound. I was very proud of myself, because Jeremy wasn’t there and I bought it anyway. I couldn’t really pass it up: It was incredibly fresh and cheap, and I’ve always liked the flavor of trout. This time I told myself to suck it up, and took care of the fins and stuff myself. I did the trout on a bed of thinly sliced onion, stuffed with parsley, dill and lemon slices, topped with a smear of lemon-shallot butter (1/2 stick soft butter, zest of 1 lemon, and a small minced shallot, stirred up) and some lemon slices, with an olive oil and white wine drizzle. Before I stuck it in the oven I prepped some oniony couscous and asparagus, and while the fish cooked for 15 minutes, I got those made. The asparagus was skillet cooked a la Lidia Bastianich, and was a perfect complement to the rest.

Whole Fish in a Parchment Packet

This is a plan of attack, more than a recipe. The most important bit, of course, is the freshness of the fish.

1 (1-2 lb) whole fish, dressed
aromatics (eg: onion, garlic, lemon slices)
fresh herbs (eg: parsley, dill, thyme, rosemary, etc.)
liquids (eg: white wine, lemon juice)
salt and pepper
olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400F. Rinse the fish inside and out and make sure there aren’t any stray scales. On a baking sheet, place a sheet of parchment paper long enough to enclose the fish when folded in half. Put the fish on one half of the parchment and season aggressively inside and out. If desired, stuff the cavity with fresh herbs and/or aromatics. Scatter aromatics over top of the fish, drizzle with olive oil and splash with a few tablespoons (total) of your chosen liquids. Fold over the edges of the parchment and crimp into a packet, sealing with egg white (a la Mario) or staples (a la Alton). Place in the oven and cook for 15-20 minutes, based on size. When ready to eat, tear open the parchment, fillet the fish with a knife, and serve slices with your fish turner. Tons of possible variations, which we intend to try out from time to time.

Source: Based loosely on Molto Mario, with Mario Batali.

Update 1/5/12: Fish al cartoccio, or en papillote if you fancy a French slant, does not only have to be done with whole fish. I baked fillets of turbot in parchment packets with thinly sliced leek, shiitake mushrooms, shaved carrot and garlic slivers; with a little mustard butter smeared on each side and a sprinkle of salt and pepper, no additional liquid was necessary. Baked at 400F for about 12 minutes.

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