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Fish in Crazy Water


We didn’t eat much fish at my house when I was a little girl – except on Fridays.  We always had fish on Fridays, because that was what all good Italian Catholic families in the Bronx did.   Even after Vatican II said it was okay to eat meat on Fridays, we didn’t.  My mother said it just didn’t seem right.  It was almost always the exact same kind of fish too – flounder, dipped in egg and bread crumbs and fried. 

Every Friday afternoon when I got home from school, my mother would press a ten dollar bill in my hand and send me down the block to Mario, the fish guy, for 1 1/2 pounds of “flounder fillets”.    As I moseyed on down to Mario’s, she’d invariably call after me to “Make sure you smell the fish!”, and “Don’t forget to count the change!”  And, I always did.  To this day, I never buy a piece of fish without smelling it first, although I’m not quite as religious about counting my change. 

Now, that I’m a grown up, I pretty much eat whatever I want on Fridays.  But during Lent, it’s back to fish – except for fried flounder.  Been there, done that.  Luckily, there are many other kinds of fish and seafood available to me here in sunny Florida and a gazillion different ways to prepare them.   When I saw this legendary, old Marcella Hazan [2] recipe [3] featured in the new issue of Food and Wine [4], I knew it was my destiny. 


The dish is called Pesce All’Acqua Pazza, or Fish in Crazy Water.  Crazy water?  “What the heck is crazy water?”, I asked myself.  I was intrigued.  As it turns out, “crazy water” is nothing more than a simple sauce of fresh tomatoes, garlic, parsley, olive oil and…water.  Yes, water!  The ingredients are simmered, nurtured and reduced down until a vibrant and deeply flavored poaching liquid for the fish is coaxed out of them.  That plain, old H2O has the ability to transform a few basic ingredients into such a lovely, aromatic sauce is what, I suspect, makes it crazy.   I know, I know.  Fish poached in tomato sauce doesn’t sound like such groundbreaking stuff.  But, this humble little sauce really is something special.

The original recipe calls for red snapper fillets.   Of course, on the day I’d planned to try this recipe, there was no red snapper to be found.  So, I looked for another kind of firm-textured, mild, white fish to use instead.   I chose a lovely fresh water fish called walleye, but grouper, halibut, sea bass or cod would also be great choices.  Marcella also says to leave the skin on.  I think that‘s to help the fish hold together after poaching.  Don’t sweat it if you can only find skinned fillets, though.  You’ll just have to be a little more careful when removing your fish from the pan. 

Whether or not you observe the “Fish on Fridays” rule, during Lent or otherwise, Fish in Crazy Water is wonderful dish to have in your repertoire.  It’s brilliant in its simplicity, and it’s “crazy” delicious!   And that, dear readers, is why I also believe that Marcella Hazan is some kind of “crazy” culinary genius.