Pesce al Cartoccio

26 January 2015, 100 Jane Street, Manhattan

My first “food” post is motivated by a recipe I found in Downtown Italian that is so easy and delicious, I’m compelled to share it.  I’ve made a few minor modifications to the original recipe, “Branzino al Cartoccio”, and offer a few alternatives for different types of fish.


Serves 4

6 ounces of pearled couscous (the big ones) or fregola pasta

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)

1 pint package of grape or cherry tomatoes, halved

2 scallions, thinly chopped

juice and zest of 1 lemon and another lemon for wedges

1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper

1/2 orange bell pepper, thinly chopped

7 black or green pitted olives, roughly chopped

4 fillets of thin white fish, 1/3 to 1/2 a pound each, branzino, tilapia or flounder

cracked black pepper

4 sprigs thyme

4 pieces of 12″ x 17″ parchment paper

I made this recipe twice one week and saved a lot of time by doing half of the prep work on Sunday night – something I’d highly recommend.

Part I:

Cook the couscous or fregola pasta according to the directions on the packaging but only until it’s very al dente and a bit hard when you bite into it.  Don’t add any seasoning packets that may accompany the grains.  If there is no recipe, just bring a large pot of water to a boil and season with salt.  Boil until al dente and drain it thoroughly.

In a medium bowl, toss the cooked couscous with 1 1/2 teaspoon EVOO, tomatoes, scallion, lemon juice, lemon zest, Aleppo pepper, orange bell pepper, green olives and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.  At this point either set aside or refrigerate for up to 4 days.

Part II:

About 30 minutes before you’re ready to eat the fish, start doing the following:

Preheat the oven to 400.  Clean the fish and pat dry with paper towels.  Lightly season the fish on both sides with salt and pepper.  Take the 4 pieces of parchment paper and fold them in half.  Open the parchment paper like a book and spoon one-quarter of the couscous salad onto one-half of each piece of paper.  Lay the fish fillet on top of the couscous, skin-side up.  Cut 2 quarter inch thick slice of lemon to get a 2 thin slices of a circular lemon.  Cut those circular lemon slices in half and place one on top of each fish fillet.  Drizzle 1 teaspoon of EVOO over each piece of fish and place one thyme sprig atop each fillet.

Fold the parchment paper over the fish fillets to close the book and starting at the short side, roll or crimp the edges to create a tightly sealed packet (it will look like a huge empanada or half moon when you’re done).  Place the fish packets on a backing sheet and place it in the oven for 15-20 minutes – depending on the thickness of the fillet.  Because of the parchment paper, it’s harder to overcook fish like this so I would err on the longer side for a cooking time.  It’s also easy to unwrap it and check for doneness.

Serve each packet, parchment paper and all, on a plate with a lemon wedge and let guests open their own packets.

Alternative recipe:

If you like the result as much as we did, try it with different flavors and fish.  One I tried that came out well included blackened mahi mahi instead of the thin white fish fillets described above:

2 lbs mahi-mahi fillet, skin on

1 tbsp pimenton (Spanish smoked paprika)

1 tsp kosher salt

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp onion powder

1/2 tsp dried oregano

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

Preheat the oven to broil.  Clean the fish fillets and dry thoroughly with paper towels.  Cut the fillets into half pound pieces.  Mix the spices together in a bowl and sprinkle over the mahi mahi fillets.  Put on as much as you want but realize that it is fairly spicy and salty so don’t over do it.  Drizzle 1/2 tsp of EVOO on top of each season fillet and let it rest for 15 minutes.

Broil the mahi mahi, skin side down for 3.5 minutes (if you have several layers on your broiler rack, use the lowest one).  Flip the fillets over, skin side up and cook for another 3.5 minutes.  The fish should look charred at this point on both sides.  If not charring, continue to broil.

Once the mahi mahi fillets have gone through the broiler, use them in the recipe above in place of the white fish – the mahi seasoning will blend with the couscous to create a Moroccan flavor profile.


The wine pairings for this are as broad as the types of fish and seasonings you can use.  For the white fish fillets, I like a brighter, lively Champagne (blanc de blancs if you can) or a Chablis.  Two of my favorites would include a Ruinart NV Blanc de Blancs Champagne or a Moreau Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru.

For the mahi mahi preparation, you could go one of two ways – I like Riesling with food that has some heat so if you like to make it spicy, try a Donhoff Riesling.  I also think a younger Chateauneuf du Pape can also pair well with mild spice.  For a lighter seasoning, try a Chateau La Nerthe CDP.

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