I’ve had a very love-hate relationship with fish. When I was 3 or 4, I’d eat an entire fish in one sitting, an infinitely cuter (but no less crazy) version of this. One bad experience turned me off of fish for decades (I am nothing if not stubborn), and even now, as I’ve slowly but surely reintroduced fish into my diet, aside from the occasional beachside catch of the day, I mostly lean towards fillets.
The problem is that fillets can be hard to cook properly. There’s a small window in which fish goes from flaky and tender to dry dry dry, and it’s an especially tight one on firm white fish like cod or haddock, since it has less fat than salmon or tuna. One good way to get around this window is by frying the fish, but that’s not exactly #cleaneating. (Also, trying to get the smell of fried fish out of my apartment is not something I would like to spend my glorious summer evenings doing.)
So, I did as the Italians do, and poached my fish in acqua pazza. I’ve already mentioned how easy and forgiving poaching is, but while white wine and herbs are great for salmon, which already has its own distinct flavor, firm white fish is often an empty canvas. Acqua pazza, which means crazy water in Italian, takes that empty canvas and envelops it in a broth of tomatoes, garlic and olive oil that is so delicious I wanted to bathe in it myself.
My first experience with fish in acqua pazza was in Tulum of all places, and while it was delicious (fresh fish makes everything better), I knew I could do better. It took me a while, but I, aided by the queen Marcella Hazan, finally delivered, and man was it worth the wait.
To that base of tomatoes, garlic and olive oil, I added red pepper flakes, a bit of dried oregano and basil, olives and capers. Those ingredients simmer for close to an hour, melding together into a broth that would be delicious for shrimp, mussels or even chicken. It’s perfect for a few fish fillets, imparting a ton of flavor while keeping the fish tender and flaky. If all fish tasted this good, I’d eat it every day!
- 1-1/2 pints cherry tomatoes
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 large garlic cloves, crushed
- 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon dried basil
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/4 cup mixed pitted olives
- 1 tablespoon capers
- kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
- 4 cups water
- 4 6-ounce firm white-fleshed fish fillets
- In a deep skillet large enough for the fish to lay flat without overlapping, add the tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, oregano, basil, crushed red pepper, olives, capers, olives, capers, salt, pepper and water. Bring to a gentle simmer, then cover and cook for 45 minutes.
- Uncover the skillet and bring to a boil. Reduce the liquid by half.
- Add the fish (skin side up, if possible) and cook for 2 minutes, then gently flip and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes, or until the fish is opaque and has cooked through. Taste and adjust for seasonings. Serve immediately.