Mediterranean Sea Bass in Parchment

Branzino al Cartoccio

During the past 6 months, I’ve discovered not just an Italian market with an extensive fish counter but 2 fish mongers, as well. Their impact upon my diet has been incredible and I’ve enjoyed a far greater variety of seafood than ever before.  I’ve not seen some — whiting (merluzzo), eels (anguille), octopus (polipo) — since I was a boy. Others — clams (vongole), squid (calamari), red snapper, and the like — may have been more readily available but the fish and calamari were often frozen and finding clams was a hit-or-miss affair. So, suddenly having 3 sources for fresh (affordable) seafood is mind-boggling and I’ve taken full advantage of them. Mediterranean sea bass (branzino) is a case in point.

Up until I found the Italian market, branzino was something I only saw on the menus of restaurants. My usual sources for seafood certainly weren’t going to carry it, although I suppose I may have been able to order one. You can imagine my surprise when I looked at the market’s fish counter one day and saw no less than a dozen fresh branzini on display. I just could not pass them by — even though I was leaving for Michigan the next morning. I bought one, packed it in ice overnight, repacked it in ice in my cooler for the trip, and we arrived in Michigan, fresh as daisies, the next afternoon. After a quick run to a grocery, I fixed today’s recipe for Zia that night.  Unfortunately, the pictures from that dinner were too dark to be used in a post, so, I was forced to prepare the dish again here at home. I know. The sacrifices we bloggers must endure.

By now, you’ve probably surmised that al cartoccio is Italian for “in parchment.” For this dish, because of its length, I used 2 sheets of parchment paper to enclose the fish. With a smaller branzino, you may be able to use a single large sheet, folded in half.  Although this is a recreation of our meal that night, it’s not exactly what I had planned for us. True to form, I forgot to bring a few ingredients with me and her area’s markets did not have them in supply. The fish was nonetheless delicious but, if you’re interested, the “Mediterranean style” mentioned in Variations below is what I had originally intended for that evening.  No matter how you decide to prepare your fish, be sure to set aside a few of the diced vegetables and chopped herbs to be used as garnish before serving. They’ll add both texture and freshness to the dish.

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Branzino al Cartoccio Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 branzino, cleaned, scaled, fins trimmed and, if desired,  head and tail attached
  • 1 fennel bulb thinly sliced
  • thinly sliced lemon
  • diced yellow bell pepper
  • diced, cored, & seeded tomato
  • chopped scallions
  • a couple stems of fresh basil
  • 1 or 2 rosemary branches
  • a few parsley stems
  • white wine
  • olive oil
  • salt & pepper
  • 2 sheets of parchment paper
  • additional diced vegetables with hand-torn basil & parsley for garnish

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Oven Ready

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Directions

  1. Pre-heat oven to 400˚F (204˚C).
  2. Place a large sheet of parchment paper on a large baking sheet.
  3. Place the sliced fennel in a straight line, forming a bed for the fish.
  4. Use a sharp knife to score both sides of the fish. Do not cut through the backbone. Depending upon its length, 3 or 4 parallel cuts should be made into each side of the fish. Season the fish, inside and out, with salt & pepper.
  5. Lay the fish on top of the fennel bed. Stuff the cavity with a loose bundle made with all the herbs.
  6. Cover the top of the fish, from gill to tail, with lemon slices and cover them with the chopped vegetables.
  7. Sprinkle a little wine across the entire fish and then repeat with olive oil.
  8. Cover the baking sheet with another sheet of equally sized parchment paper.
  9. Beginning on one side, grab the edges of both sheets of paper, fold them twice together, and use a stapler to permanently attach them to each other.
  10. Repeat Step 9 on the remaining 3 sides, creating a sealed pouch for the fish.
  11. Lightly brush the pouch’s top with olive oil before placing the pouch and baking sheet in the pre-heated oven.
  12. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, depending upon the thickness of the fish. See Notes below.
  13. Slide the pouch on to a serving platter and bring to the table. Pierce the top but be careful of the steam’s release. Peel back the paper to reveal your main course and serve, garnished with the reserved diced vegetables and chopped herbs.

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Pronti!

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Variations

If you prefer a more Mediterranean style, add some chopped olives to the vegetables, add some fresh oregano to the herbs within the cavity, and use a little dried oregano to season the chopped vegetables. Oregano is a strong-tasting herb. Be careful not to use too much. Feel like something from South of the  (US) Border? Swap cilantro for the parsley, add a little chopped jalapeño to the vegetables, and maybe a pinch or two of cumin. And no matter style you follow, you can’t go wrong with capers — unless you forget to add them like I did when I prepared this fish.

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Notes

The cooking times may vary depending upon the size and thickness of the whole fish or even the fillets, if used. Though the pouch will protect your fish from drying out to a point, you don’t want to let it cook too long. A good rule of thumb for this or any fish roasted in parchment is to listen for the sizzle coming from inside the pouch. Most whole fish will be finished cooking from 7 to 9 minutes from that point; fillets will be finished in about 5 minutes.

You may have noticed that I used staples instead of a series of folds to seal the parchment ends. Once I saw Alton Brown do this, I abandoned the origami method of sealing the pouches. This is so much easier and reliable, especially when preparing a fish large enough to require 2 sheets of parchment paper.

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It’s déjà vu all over again …

I’m just finishing up with this year’s canning, preserving, and pickling. One family favorite that I shared last year is the recipe for Zia’s Corn Relish. It’s a simple pickle, actually, and results in a great little condiment to serve with virtually any protein. It’s a little bit o’ sunshine on your dinner plate and who wouldn’t like that in the cold months ahead? Now, don’t worry if the “good” fresh corn is no longer available. Frozen corn can easily be used to make this relish and you can see the recipe by clicking HERE.

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Coming soon to a monitor near you …

Crostini

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