My Sicilian Table: Mediterranean Fish Baked "Al Cartoccio"
Fresh lemons, parsley and garlic against a serving plate
from Ceramica Marsalese, Marsala and ceramic jar
from The French Garden Shoppe, San Diego.
Among the most delicious offerings of the Sicilian table are its fish, which in Sicily are fresh, abundant, varied and exquisite. Warm Mediterranean waters result in a very different kind of seafood experience than deep water fish of the Pacific or Atlantic. Some of my most unforgettable dining experiences in Sicily have been seafood dishes.
Along with the prized blue fin tuna or "tonno," which is now eaten around the world, Japan being the largest consumer, the "ricciola," or amber jack, known in Sicily as "la regina del mare" or "queen of the sea," is rank highly among Sicilians.
Also in abundance are "dentice" called "dentex" in English; "spigola" and "branzino" both a type of European sea bass; and a small, extremely sweet reddish fish called "triglia" or red mullet. Shell fish of every variety, octopus, eels, sardines and a host of other seafood are also found at the fish markets and make their way to the Sicilian table.
Selections of the Trapani fish market.
One of my favorite preparations is "pesce al cartoccio" or fish cooked in parchment paper--in this case aluminum foil. No one prepares this dish more skillfully than my mother's sister Dora and her husband Ignazio who live in Trapani, an area known for its fishing industry and excellent fish market. Both are gifted cooks who understand how to heighten the flavor of fresh ingredients without altering or covering them up. This, I believe, is the true heart of Sicilian cooking--fresh, ingredients whose flavors are allowed to blossom without being fundamentally changed.
This recipe and photo come from a memorable meal my husband and I had at their home last summer. To begin, have your fish market clean, scale and prepare a whole fresh fish of your choice--"ricciola" or "dentice" are often used in Sicily but you can use sea bream or Mediterranean branzino, which is now readily available in local markets and specialty stores in the United States. Sicilians leave the heads on the fish because the freshness of the catch is seen in the eyes. If your fish is not completely fresh, consider making steak for dinner.
You will need a generous bunch of Italian flat leaf parsley; 3 or 4 lemons; 3 large cloves of garlic, sliced; salt and pepper to taste and 3 or 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Wash the fish and pat it dry. Make several diagonal cuts on the top of the fish and place it in on a double layer of aluminum foil large enough to loosely wrap around the fish. Season the fish with salt and pepper and a generous amount of olive oil. Chop half the parsley and sprinkle on the fish. The remainder of the parsley leave uncut and place it inside the belly of the fish. Slice the garlic and place some of the slices in the diagonal cuts along the top and the remainder in the belly as well. Squeeze 2 or 3 lemons over the fish. The remainder of the lemon can be cut in slices and also placed in the belly.
Ricciola al cartoccio
prepared by Dora and Ignazio Occhipinti.
Bring the two sides of the aluminum foil together and loosely seam them together at the top allowing enough room for steam to circulate. Bake in an oven at 350 for about 30 minutes depending on the size of the fish. (You can check if it is done by carefully opening the aluminum foil. The steam is very hot, so please be careful.) This dish can be prepared on an outdoor grill as well.
When it is cooked, carefully open the aluminum foil to release the steam. Using a long spatula, transfer the fish onto a serving dish. In Sicily the fish is brought to table whole for all to admire. But if you would like to bone the fish first, gently lift the top fillet and place it skin side down on a serving plate. Remove the bone--the central bones will lift easily- and place the other fillet skin side down on the serving dish. Garnish with fresh parsley and a thread of olive oil if needed.