I was doing it all wrong.
Pesce con Olive , Fish with Olives, was one of those dishes that Domenico mentioned from the very beginning of our relationship. Whenever I would buy fish, he would request I cook it this way. Every time he described it, it always sounded so….boring? Since Domenico’s request was based on a childhood memory, I turned to the source of all Minchilli family food lore: his mother Rosa.
As far as I recall, she told me to put the fish in the pan and surround it with olives. A drizzle of olive oil, and then pop it in the oven. Which I did. With many different kinds of fish. It was never bad. But it was never great. The fish got baked, the olives kind of dried out, and never really added anything as far as I could tell to the final outcome of the fish. What was the big deal?
Now, you have to know a few things about this story. First of all I got the recipe from Rosa while talking on the phone early on in my marriage. So, maybe my Italian wasn’t as good as it is now? Maybe I was missing something essential? Also, I never actually saw Rosa cook this dish herself, so had nothing to base it on.
Somehow, it never occurred to me to A) look up the recipe in a cookbook or online or B) ask someone else for their recipe.
So there I was, making this kind of boring dish over and over again for years.
Until I went shopping last week in Bari. We were down for Easter and decided, very unconventionally, to make fish for our main course. We headed to Sophie‘s favorite fish shop (where she dreams of marrying the cute fish monger) and came home with two fish he called Fragolino. Also known as Parago or Pagello we decided, for lack of any other idea, to make it with olives.
Stopping by the olive stand at the market we stood in line for our olives, and mentioned that we were making pesce con olive, and asked ‘were these the correct olives to use?’ At which point, I’m sure you can imagine what ensued. Just about every other woman standing in line started chiming in about what type of olives we should use and how best to go about making this dish.
First of all they all agreed that at least a few tomatoes were essential. Ok. Also? That the entire fish – along with the olives and tomatoes – should be wrapped up, in cartoccio, before heading to the oven.
Well, duh. Of course. This made perfect sense. Once wrapped up tightly in a little package with the olives and tomatoes, the fish came out of the oven perfectly cooked, moist and fragrant with the briny olives. It all made sense. Finally.
It only took me 25 years, but some recipes take more practice – and research – than others, I guess. And are worth it.
- 2 whole fish - about 2 pounds/1 kilo each*
- 8 small tomatoes
- 1 cup briny green olives
- olive oil
- salt, pepper
- *Make sure the fish vendor cleans the fish for you, but taking out the guts and removing the scales. But leave the head on.
- Preheat the oven to 350F/180C
- Place one fish on a sheet of parchment or aluminum foil. Generously oil the fish, and season the cavity with salt and pepper. Stuff some parsley into the cavity, along with an olive or two. Scatter half the olives around the fish, along with four tomatoes, quartered.
- Wrap up the fish creating a seal so that when it cooks, the steam doesn't escape
- Repeat for the other fish.
- Place in preheated oven and bake for about 35 minutes.
- Take out and let rest for 10 minutes.
- To serve, place on platter, and debone. Remove the bones and pour the juices from the parchment , along with the olives and tomatoes on top.