Al cartoccio in Italian is the culinary term for cooked in a paper parcel or a paper bag and versions of this dish are cooked all over Italy. You may also have eaten pasta al catoccio and in fact, recently in a restaurant in Melbourne, I ate a version of pasta cooked in a bag and it was made with braised mushroom.
Last time I was in Sicily I ate Fish in a bag in a restaurant in Sciacca (south west coast). They had added a little seawater and a few prawns and mussels to their version (see photo below); I have used black olives instead.
Traditionally the fish was wrapped in strong parchment-like paper, but metal foil has reached Italy and Sicily and has replaced the paper. I like to use foil, but I line the package with some baking paper – this prevents sticking and provides greater insulation. Adding seawater has been a common practice when cooking fish dishes and the restaurant called their version pesce in acqua di mare (fish cooked in seawater). If you live close to the sea, 1 tablespoon of seawater is sufficient.
Every time I have eaten this dish in a restaurant in Italy, the parcel was presented at the table and pierced by the waiter; he then separated the fish into fillets and served it on my plate.
I have used a whole Yellowtail Kingfish for this recipe and it was sufficient for two people.
extra virgin olive oil, ½ cup
salt or(1 tablespoon of seawater)
flat leaf parsley or fresh basil or oregano to taste
garlic, 1-3 cloves, sliced
black olives (good quality), to taste
cherry tomatoes, 4-5 per fish
Preheat the oven to 220 C.
Clean the fish: scale, gut and wipe dry. Use a sharp knife to make shallow cuts in the outside of a whole fish –slash the fish but leave whole.
Use strong foil large enough to wrap the fish like a parcel. Place a piece of baking paper on the foil and the fish on the centre (with a little oil underneath)
Add other ingredients.
Fold the edges of the foil together tightly to make a neat package with an airtight seal.
My fish weighed just below 1 kilo and I cooked it for 25 mins.
The easiest way to see if it is cooked, is to check it after this time and cook it longer if necessary. Once you take it out of the oven, remember that the residual heat in the fish will cause it to keep on cooking, either keep it sealed if you wish it to go on cooking, or make a hole in the parcel to allow some of the heat and steam to escape.
Serve the fish with the juices from the package. At the time of serving it, I added a drizzle of my best, extra virgin olive oil to make it more aromatic.
“It will be maccheroni, I swear to you, that will unite Italy.”
Giuseppe Garibaldi, on liberating Naples in 1860
When eating in Italy, the usual structure of the meal will consist of two courses. Il primo (the first )will be a soup, risotto or pasta and in Sicily (and in the south of Italy) it is more likely to be pasta
Il secondo (the second) is the main course – the protein component and one contorno (vegetable side dish) or two contorni.
There have always been two courses in my mother’s home, and in the homes of our Italian friends and relatives. Although this is not something that I have continued to observe in my own household, I generally prepare a primo and a secondo when I am cooking for friends. If this is the case, as is the customary practice in Italian homes, nibbles can just be a very simple plate of olives (or the like) and the dessert, fresh fruit.
These days, I am into easy recipes, something I can prepare in minutes.
Eating pasta with fish is still not very popular in Australia (at the time of writing) but it is very much so in Italy and of course – Sicily. It is an island after all.
Spaghetti is usually the preferred shape of pasta for fish sauces.
Cherry tomatoes appear to have become very common in restaurants in Italy in the last few years. They are called pomodorini, or cigliegini in Italian and most commonly known as pizzitelli in Sicilian – little things.
Some of the cherry tomatoes in Australia may be small but they lack flavour and sweetness (maybe from over watering if this is possible in Australia). One of my friends in Adelaide is growing a variety called currant tomatoes in pots – very small and sweet and ideal for this dish.
Use any fish which will hold together when you sauté it.
Sicilians prefer tuna or swordfish, but because I like to use sustainable fish (pesce sostenibile) I select Albacore tuna when I can get it, tailor or flathead or snapper and mackerel . To keep the fish moist and to prevent it from overcooking, i keep the fish in large pieces when I cook it and then break it up onto smaller pieces.
From Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide by Australian Marine Conservation Society – 2009 (AMCS)
fish, 500g, cut into dice
garlic, 5 cloves, chopped finely
cherry tomatoes, 1 punnet, if too big cut in half,
extra virgin olive oil, 1 cup
fresh herbs, use either: a handful of basil or parsley, or fresh mint,
white wine, 1 glass
salt and freshly ground pepper (or chilli flakes)
Cook pasta and make sauce as it cooks.
Heat the oil in a frying pan.
Sauté the fish ( you can keep it all in one piece if you wish), add the cherry tomatoes. Remove the fish and tomotoes from the pan but leave the juices in the pan.
Add the white wine and reduce .
Add the herbs and stir through the sauce.
Return the fish and tomatoes to the pan. Separate the fish into the size pieces that you wish.
Drain the pasta and return to the pan where it was cooked.