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  recipe  featured in the new issue of Food and Wine , 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.
Fish in Crazy Water (Pesce All’Acqua Pazza)
adapted from Marcella Hazan via Food and Wine Magazine, October, 1997 
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped, seeds removed and juices reserved
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
Pinch of dried red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon salt plus more to taste
4 cups water
Four 8-ounce white fish fillets (The original recipe calls for red snapper. However, any mild, white fish, such as grouper, cod or halibut will work as well. Use fillets with the skin on, if possible. They will hold together better.)
Combine the tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, parsley, red pepper, salt and water together in a large, wide skillet over medium heat. Cover and bring to a simmer. Keep simmering, covered, for 45 minutes.
Uncover the skillet and continue to simmer until the sauce has reduced by half. This should take about 20-25 minutes more.
Add the fish fillets, skin side up, and cook for about 2 minutes. Then, flip the fillets and poach in the sauce until the fish is cooked through, about 8-10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper as desired.
Serve over a mound of pasta or a thick slice of toasted sourdough bread.