This is a simple, light and comforting fish recipe.
L’Acqua Pazza (literally “Crazy Water”) is a fish cooking technique typical of Neapolitan and Southern Italian cuisine. It describes the cooking of medium-sized white fish in a water-based poaching liquid made with salt, olive oil, garlic, white wine, and chopped tomatoes. Minced parsley is added at the end, which gives this dish its unmistakable touch.
The origin of Acqua Pazza dates back to the 1800s, when this cooking technique was used above all by the poor fishermen of Campania, Lazio, Sicily, Calabria, and Puglia. These seafarers prepared their lunches on board their fishing boats, and instead of using salt for their seafood recipes – too expensive – they used sea water and other simple ingredients within easy reach. Crazy water fish became world famous in the 1960s thanks to Totò, a famous Neapolitan comedian and actor, who loved to eat this dish in the best restaurants in Capri. Totò, or the ‘prince of laughter’ as he is called in Italy, launched a real historical trend and today you can enjoy this recipe not only on islands like Capri and Ponza, but also along the Italian coast.
As its poor origins remind us, Acqua Pazza is not a codified recipe and there are many variations. You can use cherry tomatoes or simply chopped tomatoes, you can enrich the water-based poached liquid with capers and black olives. Acqua Pazza can be prepared both in the oven or in a pan, using a whole fish or fillets, and the most suitable fish are: white cod, turbot, mackerel sea bream, sea bass, dentex, and, last but not least, the red snapper (my new American seafood love, since we don’t find it in Italy).
My grandmother, Nonna Marianna, (yes, I was named after my father’s mother) used to prepare white cod fillets in a pan according to her fast and economic everyday idea of a family meal (at the time cod was the cheapest fish on the market). My favorite version is with sea bream or red snapper, and I agree with her about the fillet in a pan, it’s so practical and fast! But if I want to surprise Mark with a special dinner or we are hosting friends for dinner, I prefer to cook a whole fish because it’s more spectacular and in this case I use the oven option, especially because once the fish has been prepared and put in the oven you can devote yourself to the preparation of appetizers and enjoy your guests. For this recipe I used sea bream fillets, Sauvignon wine, and I added capers (if you follow this blog you already know that Sauvignon is my favorite cooking wine and that I love capers so much that I try to add them to my recipes every time I can. However, at the end of this recipe you will find notes about how to prepare a whole fish, how to use the oven, what other ingredients are sometimes used, and, above all, what to do if you happen to have leftovers, because they are so good when used for the preparation of a risotto-style pasta.
Here is the recipe for two portions, of course.
Ready water in 30 minutes.
- 3 tablespoons (30 g.) extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 1 dash of red pepper flakes (or 1/2 hot red pepper finely chopped)
- 12 onces (350 g.) grape tomatoes (about 3 medium ones), rinsed and chopped
- 3 tablespoons (30 g.) salted capers, rinsed
- 2 bream fillets (about 5 onces or 300 g. each)
- 1/2 cup dry white wine (I love Sauvignon)
- 1 cup (250 g.) water
- Kosher salt to taste
- 2 twigs of fresh parsley, rinsed and finely chopped
- freshly ground pepper to taste
- 2 slices of a crusty Italian (or sourdough) bread
- In a medium-sized skillet (at least 10″, large enough to contain the fish and allow you to keep every piece separate,) heat the olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes over medium heat. Sauté until the garlic is golden-brown, about 1 minute.
- Add the tomatoes and the capers. Stir and cook until the tomatoes start to soften, about 5 minutes.
- Add the wine and 1/2 a cup of water. Stir, then cook the tomatoes for about 5 minutes. (If you don’t like the tomatoes too liquefied, skip this step.)
- Add the fish, skin side down, and the remaining water. The fish should be just half covered.
- Cover the skillet with a lid, turn the heat down to medium-low and allow to simmer for 15/20 minutes (if there is not enough liquid add more hot water). If you like a more condensed sauce just remove the lid after 10/15 minutes.
- A few minutes before the fillets are done cooking, add the salt and half of the parsley.
- Transfer the fish to the plates, pour a little of the “crazy water” over and around it, making sure to include some tomatoes.
- Garnish with a little more fresh parsley and toasted bread to soak up the remaining crazy sauce at the end of the meal!
That’s all! Buon appetito!
VARIATIONS & TIPS:
FILLET VS WHOLE FISH: If you want to prepare a whole sea bream which has not already been cleaned at the time of purchase, start by cleaning it in the following way.
With scissors, eliminate the lateral fins, the dorsal fins, and the ventral fins (you can leave the caudal fins to successively check what point you are at in cooking.) Desquamate the scales with a knife, scraping from the caudal fin to the head. make a cut in the belly and eviscerate. Then rinse the sea bream under fresh running water, making sure you have cleaned it well inside too.
Remember that half its weight will be lost in the final cleaning phase, which involves the elimination of the innards, the spine, the head and the gills.
PAN VS OVEN: If you prepare the fish in the oven I suggest you use a whole one. Here’s how to prepare it:
1. Preheat the oven at 400°F (220°C).
2. Place a pinch of salt, a halved clove of garlic and a few leaves of parsley in the belly. 3. 3. Sprinkle the bottom of the baking dish with extra-virgin olive oil, then lay the fish down.
4. Add the tomatoes, the remaining clove of garlic cut into slices, the water and the wine (the fish should be less than half-covered.)
5. Bake for about 20-25 minutes. To make sure the fish is cooked you should try to gently pull on the caudal fin: when it can be easily removed it means the sea bream is cooked, otherwise, if it resists, cook the fish for a few more minutes.
6. Once cooked, prepare the fillets (I love doing it in front of my guests).
7. With the help of a spoon and a knife, remove the skin, bones and the head.
8. Once you have 4 fillets, sprinkle them with the cooking sauce and the remaining parsley.
TOMATOES: You can use both chopped grape tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes. Usually I prefer grape tomatoes when I cook in a skillet and cherry tomatoes when I cook in the oven. In any case, remember to conserve all their juice when you cut them and pour it into the skillet/baking dish so the water-based broth will be more richly tomato-favored.
CAPERS VS OTHER INGREDIENTS: Because the origins of this recipe are tied to the simple ingredients that fisherman had on their boats, you can make the water even more ‘crazy’ if you wish by adding sliced onions and sliced pitted-oil-cured black olives, or preparing a ‘sofritto‘ with chopped onion, carrots and celery sautéed in olive oil at the beginning.
LEFTOVERS: When I cook this dish I really hope there are leftovers. You can keep them in an airtight container in the refrigerator for two days at most. Most importantly, you can use them to prepare a risotto-style pasta, just put them in a skillet with the pasta and cover everything with simmering water for twenty minutes over a low-medium heat. For more information about this cooking technique, see my Puttanesca sauce pasta-risotto-style recipe.