Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Carnival and orata al cartoccio - Sea bream wrapped and baked in foil

Yesterday was Martedì Grasso, better known as Mardi Gras or Fat/Shrove Tuesday in English. Cities dressed up and partied all over the world and people feasted, drank and danced to their heart's delight.
Having grown up in Venice, Carnival triggers a lot of memories of childhood pranks, costumes, dancing in the squares of the floating city, fingers sticky from fried, sugary delights throwing confetti up into the air.

In Milan, Carnival starts later than the rest of the world because the city follows the Ambrosian rite (named after Saint Ambrose, the fourth Century bishop of Milan who is also the city's patron saint) instead of the Roman rite. There are several differences in the liturgical year, one of them being that Lent starts four days later than in the Roman rite so that there is no Ash Wednesday, and Carnival continues until sabato grasso (literally Fat Saturday in Italian). In the past, much of Northern Italy celebrated Carnival following the Ambrosian rite, but nowadays only Milan and a few nearby towns and cities follow this tradition.

That is why my daughter's carnival party in kindergarden is today. Her class' theme is wild animals and she chose to be a lion. Teachers insist on not buying costumes (we are only allowed to recycle material) and taking the time to work on a family project together. A terrific idea, except I am the world's worst sewer. My fingers are crossed that the mane does not fall of the mask we painted together (I actually only helped with some of the black outlines) and that the tail I made with fabric and yarn does not unravel on her walk to school.

She painted it all by herself.

As many of you already know, I go to the office at the crack of dawn, so my husband F has morning duty with the kids taking them to school whilst I have afternoon duty picking them up. It ensues that a mask was a must, it was inconceivable that my husband paint my daughter's face at 8:00am. We thought it would at least be nice - and easy - to draw a little nose and some whiskers on her cheeks as she will not be wearing her mask the whole day.

So last night we had dress rehearsals and I showed my husband again how to snap on the very basic fur tunic I made (a crooked rectangle of fabric with no hems and one lone snap), how to tie on the tail (a strip of fabric that is supposed to be a belt with another long strip of fabric stiched onto it). Believe me when I say it is rustic. I then proceeded to draw a nose and whiskers on my daughter and told him where the eyepencil was in case I forgot to leave it out in my sleepy 6:00am mode.

Surely enough, this morning I got a phone call in the office. It was my husband hollering in my ear that he couldn't find the brown pencil, that he hates doing this stuff, that he knows nothing about make up etc. 
My mistake, I said I would leave it out for him. I used it and put it back into the glass where I keep such things. (I would love to mention that there are only 2 glasses in the bathroom, not 10. In them are eye pencils, scissors, mascara, an eyelash curler that I haven't used since 1987 and an eyebrow brush. Nothing more and nothing less. I also would be tempted to tell you that I remembered a whole other bunch of things at 6:15am like preparing the boy's clean bibs for daycare and his change of clothes. And last but not least I wish I could point out that my DH rolled his eyes when I told him where the pencil was last night. But I won't because I am a loving wife).

So as my daughter runs around roaring at her friends and my husband relaxes in front of his computer after another crazy morning of parenting (he is a wonderful dad and I am eternally grateful that he is not the stereotypical Italian man) I give you the simplest of ideas. A different way to cook fish now that Lent has started if you want to be traditional, or a healthy alternative to your usual recipes.
For those of you who do not know what pesce (fish) al cartoccio means, it is the process of cooking a whole small to medium-sized fish or individual filets wrapped in parchment paper or aluminum foil with seasoning and some form of liquid, allowing it to cook in the aromatic steam.

2 sea breams, 550gr each
1 orange
a knob of ginger
olive oil
parchment paper or aluminum foil

Wash the inside and outside of the fish thoroughly. Place on a piece of aluminum foil/parchment paper. Sprinkle with salt and rosemary (I used a lovely organic salt with rosemary and lemon zest my stepmother made me for Christmas). Cut a knob of ginger into pieces without peeling and scatter around fish. Cut half of an orange into thin slices and place on top and inside the fish, then sprinkle over the juice of the remaining half and drizzle with olive oil. You can get creative and make endless combinations. Substitute the traditional white wine used for pesce al cartoccio with another cooking liquid such as lemon juice, grapefruit juice or lime. Add a few drops of sesame oil instead of olive oil, or some garlic cloves or thin slices of onion or some lemon grass. When in season, a few lightly squashed cherry tomatoes are a must. Thinly sliced fennel also works great. These are just a few ideas. Close the paper like an envelope, making sure you seal all sides so the liquid doesn't spill out. Place in your preheated oven at 220°C and bake according to size (approximately 20 minutes). Watch out for the hot steam when you open the pouch! Clean the fish and serve. I like to serve it with rice or potatoes so they can soak up the delicious cooking juices. If the fish is small enough you can serve it individually on plates directly in the opened pouch (in this case I suggest using parchment paper).


  1. Your daughter looks great with her lion mask. I am sure she will have lots of fun today.
    I love to steam veggies, fish or chicken in foil as well. It is easy and always very tasty.

  2. Congratulate your daughter on her fabulous mask. We also call Shrove Tuesday Pancake day and celebrate with pancakes before Lent starts.

  3. I LOVE the look of that fish all ready to be wrapped up in foil and cooked! YUM!!

    I can't believe your daughter did such a great job on her lion face! And your story about your husband cracks me up! What is it about men and how they can totally just shut down when a tad flustered! LOL!

    (Oh and I have the same eye lash curler!)

  4. MyKintheR - She had a ball. I have only made fish this way, am curious to try chicken and veg. What do you use? Broccoli? Zucchini?
    Lindy - is that a tradition in the UK or just a family tradition?
    DD&W - I helped a bit with the black lines but the colouring and whiskers she did all by herself. My husband sent me that pic of my daughter from his phone, maybe he was feeling guilty.

  5. This looks delicious - is there another fish I could use if I cannot find sea bream? Also, any chance you could find out the citrus salt recipe? I would LOVE to make that to have in my pantry! I am making family lunch on Saturdday - roast chicken and carrot souffle!

  6. I love you Nuts about Food!
    @ Mrs. Smith. I make the salts by eye but basically for the citrus fennel
    you will need:
    1 cup of sea salt
    Zest and a few peels of 2 oranges
    1/4 cup of fennel seed
    I zest the oranges and place the zest and some peels in a 350F oven on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and let it dry out for about 30 - 45 mins.
    I take 1/3 of the salt, 1/2 the fennel seed and all but 2 or 3 of the orange peels and coarsely grind in a spice grinder or food processor and then mix it back in with the rest of the coarse salt, fennel and all the zest & remaining peels and store in a glass jar or tupperware.

  7. @Mrs. Smith - Sorry I forgot to state that I use coarse organic sea salt in the ingredients list.

  8. @TableofContent - thank you!

  9. I'd love to attend a Mardi Gras one year! It sounds so wonderfully festive. This dish sounds fabulous too! :)

  10. Your daughter looked so cute in her lion mask!

    This is one of my favorite ways to cook fish! Sounds like an excellent recipe!

  11. Mrs. Smith - I usually make sea bream and sea bass, but I think it works with pretty much any small/medium-sized fish or filets. Also, My Kitchen in the Rockies above mentioned making vegetables and chicken. Will try that next. Thanks for the recipe you mailed me, would love to be at your Saturday lunch.
    Table of Content - thanks for the recipe to make your lovely salt!
    Lorraine - you should come over and visit one day.
    Peggy - ...if you can even call it a recipe...


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