Acqua Pazza – Fun to say, delicious to eat, Pesce all’ Acqua Pazza is an Italian poached fish dish that looks and tastes like summer on a plate!
The best part is the crispy garlic crostini hidden under the fish that soaks up all that delicious sauce …
Pesce all’ Acqua Pazza: Italian poached fish
The literal translation of this Italian dish is “fish in crazy water”. Maybe because who would ever think that fish poached in a water-based sauce could be so delicious??! That’s crazy! 😉
While some have used the name as a licence to add all sorts of things to it, it’s actually supposed to be a simple dish based on three core ingredients: wine, tomato and herbs.
Oh – and yes, fish. 😂
As always there are various accounts of the origins and meaning of the dish name. No matter the truth, one thing that’s clear is it’s a dish that showcases the spirit of Italian cooking: taking a few simple ingredients and turning it into something magical.
This, coming from someone who usually steers clear of poached fish, declaring that there are so many more exciting ways to prepare fish! But truly, I’d happily eat this every day. And I practically have, leading up to sharing this recipe. 🙂
What goes in Acqua Pazza
Here’s what you need to make this wonderful Italian poached fish dish:
Best fish for Acqua Pazza
This dish works best with fairly firm white fish fillets that are not too thick. Here are some suggestions:
Snapper – this is what I used, it’s perfect!
Barramundi (try to get the thinner fillets)
Basa, hake, hoki, gummy shark
Skin-on is preferred as it helps the fillets hold their shape, but if your fillets are skinless or you dislike poached fish skin, without skin still works fine.
Small whole fish would also work just fine. Cut a few slashes so it cooks evenly and faster to ensure there’s still juices left in the pan when the fish is done.
Fish to avoid
I recommend avoiding:
Fish that dry out easily when cooked – Like swordfish, tuna, bonito, kingfish, marlin. Unless you’re extremely careful they can become dry inside. I feel these fish are (mostly) better in raw/rare form such as Ceviche, Poke Bowls, Tartare;
Delicate and thin-filleted fish – Like flounder, sole, plaice. The texture of the flesh is a bit too delicate for this type of cooking and these fish tend to be very thin fillets; and
Oily fish – Like salmon, trout, mackerels, mullet and sardines. While it will work just fine, it’s not so common to see it with this kind of sauce.
Chardonnay (or other white wine) – Using a bolder white wine is an excellent option here to pack complexity and depth of flavour into this simple dish. Unless you can’t consume alcohol, I really urge you not to skip the wine. Best non-alcoholic sub: chicken or fish stock (low sodium);
Fennel and onion – The sauce flavour base. Fennel is an Italian favourite which adds fabulous sweet flavour into the sauce. Don’t skip the fennel even if you’re not a huge fan; the aniseed flavour is very mild in the finished dish;
Chilli and garlic – Excellent friends of tomato and wine. We’re using a big red chilli here – and only half at that – which means the spiciness is virtually non-existent. It’s more about adding a really subtle background warmth. Feel free to add more!
Tomato – Both red and yellow cherry tomatoes here, simmered in the sauce until they break down to form part of the sauce. A fabulous splash of summer colour!
Basil and parsley – That moment they’re sprinkled into the hot sauce and the fresh herby flavour hits you, you know you’re in for something special!
And here’s what you need for the garlic crostini. Trust me when I say that you do not want to skip the crostini!!
How to make Acqua Pazza
The fish is half steamed, half poached on the chunky sauce. This means we get the best of both worlds: ultra moistness from gentle steaming, and a magical exchange of flavour between fish and sauce.
Sauté fennel and onion first, adding garlic and chilli, then tomato;
Reduce wine by half, cooking out the alcohol and leaving behind all the flavour!
Simmer sauce – Add water then simmer to reduce by about half. Don’t bother tasting at this stage, it’s not exciting yet;
Place fish on top of the sauce. Because it’s a chunky style sauce, it will sit mostly above the liquid level. Then place a lid on – any lid is fine (I use a pot lid just larger than my skillet). Pending a lid, cover with a baking tray or foil instead;
Poach until fish is just cooked. This takes around 6 minutes for the 180g/6oz thick snapper fillets I used, or check until the internal temperature is 55°C/131°F. This is medium which is when the fish is just cooked with no rare/raw parts left, optimum moistness. Read more about internal temperature of cook fish here.
Using this method of cooking is excellent for extracting the most flavour out of a simple dish. The juices from the fish mixes into the sauce – the purest form of fish stock ever – and the fish absorbs the flavour of the sauce; and
Herbs – Remove fish, then finally stir herbs into the sauce. Now you can taste the sauce!!!
And here’s how to assemble the finished dish:
Place 2 slices of crostini in a shallow bowl;
Spoon some sauce over the crostini;
Top with fish; and
Spoon remaining sauce around fish. Garnish with fresh basil and drizzle with olive oil.
This needs to be served immediately because the idea here is that the crostini under the fish is still crunchy, yet is soaked with sauce. Digging in with your hands at some point is not optional!
Another nice thing about Acqua Pazza is that it’s a complete meal. Protein, starch and a nice amount of veg are all here, so there’s no need to fuss with a side salad here.
It’s also got a nice flow to it, one of those recipes where you get things started on the stove as you can continue preparing the other ingredients.
Don’t let the simplicity of the dish fool you. This is a poached fish dish that packs seriously good flavour. The Italians know best! – Nagi x
Watch how to make it
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Acqua Pazza – Italian Poached Fish
- 2 x 180g/6oz snapper fillets, or other white fish, , skin on, bones and scales removed (Note 1)
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 red onion , sliced 1cm / 1/3″ thick
- 1/2 fennel (medium) , sliced sliced 1cm / 1/3" thick
- 1/2 large red chilli (cayenne pepper) , seeds removed and finely chopped (Note 2)
- 2 garlic cloves , finely minced
- 15 red cherry tomatoes , halved
- 10 yellow cherry tomatoes , halved (or more red)
- 3/4 cup chardonnay (not too woody) , or other dry white wine (Note 3)
- 2 cups water
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp basil , finely sliced (keep stems), plus more for garnish
- 1 tbsp parsley , finely chopped (keep stems)
- 1 crusty baguette , cut 4 to 6 slices on a diagonal, 1cm / 1/3" thick
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 – 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 garlic clove , halved (for rubbing)
- Sauté fennel and onion: Heat oil in a non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add fennel and onion, cook 4 minutes until softened but not golden.
- Garlic and chilli: Add garlic and chilli, cook for 1 minute until garlic is softened.
- Tomatoes: Add cherry tomatoes, cook for 4 minutes.
- Reduce wine: Turn stove up to high, add wine and simmer rapidly for 2 – 3 minutes until reduced by half.
- Simmer sauce: Add water and salt, and the basil & parsley stems if you kept them. Bring to boil, then lower stove to medium and simmer for 20 – 25 minutes until sauce reduces by about 2/3 (it will thicken from tomatoes breaking down).
- Cook fish: Sprinkle flesh side of fish with salt, then place on sauce skin side down (it will mostly sit above sauce). Cover with lid (or foil or tray) and cook for 6 minutes or until internal temperature registers 55°C/131°F (for medium, no rare/raw left with optimum juiciness).
- Remove fish: Remove lid, transfer fish to plate.
- Add herbs: Remove basil and parsley stems. Stir basil and parsley into sauce. Taste sauce, add more salt if required.
- Place 2 crostini in a shallow bowl. Spoon over a bit of the chunky sauce, top with fish. Spoon remaining sauce around.
- Garnish with extra basil and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve immediately.
- Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F (all types).
- Brush olive oil on bread, sprinkle with a bit of salt. Flip and repeat. Bake 10 minutes, turning halfway, or until fully crispy.
- Rub bread lightly on one side with cut face of garlic. Use warm or at room temperature.
Non-alcoholic substitute: low sodium chicken or fish stock, and reduce salt in sauce by 1/4 tsp. 4. Bread – Best to use a bread that’s got a bit of structure and heft to it: ciabatta, pane di casa / pain de campagne, stone-baked loaf or a sourdough. If you use the soft white baguettes, the crostini will soak through immediately once sauced and just become soggy. You want it to stay crispy even once sauced so you can pile it up with the fish and vegetables – it’s the best eating experience! Slice on a suitable diagonal angle so you get long thin pieces that are at least the length of the fish fillet, if not longer. 5. Best made fresh. If you have leftovers, keep fish and sauce separate from crostini. Microwave / steam reheat fish and sauce, then assemble. 6. Nutrition per serving, assuming 2 slices of crostini. Shave off 62 cal per serving by reducing cooking olive oil from 2 tbsp down to 1 tbsp.
Life of Dozer
I’m too embarrassed to tell you what he’s getting a hunk of here … let’s just say it’s pricier than fish …
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