In our camp we're rather fond of this frontier method, which indulges us the fantasy that we're camping wild somewhere in the mountains with nothing more than a fishing rod and a good newspaper for company. This way of cooking small, whole fish has the same austerity as steaming them between long wild grasses: it keeps the flesh beautifully moist and traps every ounce of the fish's flavor within the paper shell.
Like so many radically simple dishes, however, it is not necessarily the easiest to get right. It is often suggested that the packets are baked in the embers of a fire, but the dividing line between embers and ashes is a fine one. It's not the kind of dish you can test halfway through, as once the packet is open you have to proceed with eating it. I would serve the fish with a simple tomato sauce, fresh lemon slices, pita bread and also, in a perfect world, some hot, buttered asparagus.
Any small fish are candidates, but I have a particular soft spot for red snapper and sea bass, each offering a buttery sweetness with a firm succulence. A couple of fish weighing in at a pound or so each will be sufficient for four people, although that said, you’ll probably polish them off even if there are only two of you. You probably want about six ounces per person of filleted fish, so allow double that for a whole, unfilleted fish.
- Fish, like red snapper or sea bass (see note above)
- Sea salt
Season each fish liberally with sea salt, including the cavity, and wrap in about 5 sheets of newspaper, wetting each sheet first. This provides a more secure packet than if you simply wet a stack of paper. Cook the packets for about 15 minutes on each side on a covered grill — there is not a chance of the paper actually bursting into flames, even though you might think there is, but you may need to splash a bit of water at the packets now and then if the edges of the paper start to smoke. By the end, the newspaper will be blackened, but once cut open, the skin of the fish should come away with the paper, revealing beautifully cooked milky white flesh.