When Jackie and I see a particularly beautiful piece of fish in the market, it’s hard to resist pointing to it and saying, “Give us that one” – even when it’s too big for two. That’s what the freezer is for, and not long before we left for a trip (we’re now in London, eating well and enjoying excellent theater, music and art) it yielded up a nearly 7-ounce (200 g) fillet of monkfish. The thicker part of it we’d eaten a week or two earlier, and this remnant was from the narrow tail end.
Since our recent good experiences with rigatoni and salt cod, I’d been looking forward to another fish pasta dish, and the monkfish was ideal for that purpose. Why so? Because its compact flesh, even when cut into cubes, keeps its shape when cooked. (So does swordfish, which would be another option for this dish.)
Also in cold storage (this time in the fridge, not the freezer) was a container of simple tomato sauce (how I make it is described in another posting), and since I was thinking in southern Italian terms I opted for a dish that would use red-sauce flavors, but judiciously.
Think of pasta alla puttanesca, but then think of how its ultra-aggressive flavors could overwhelm just about any fish. What I wanted was a milder, slightly simpler variant in which the fish could be simmered without getting swamped. First, I jettisoned the olives (one ingredient too many), then cut down on the dosage of other classic puttanesca ingredients, but not so much that their contribution was lost.
A while in advance, using a pan big enough to eventually hold the pasta, I cooked a whole peeled clove of garlic and a good sprinkle of chili flakes (the Calabrian ones are great here, but Aleppo or other chilies would be no less delicious) in about 2 Tablespoons of olive oil. Over medium-low heat, I let it go until the garlic and chili aromas were wafting around the kitchen; it would be fine to let the garlic turn pale gold, but don’t brown it or burn the chili flakes. At this point a teaspoonful of rinsed, towel-dried, roughly chopped capers went in and cooked for half a minute. Now I added one oil-packed anchovy – yes, just one – and broke it up with my spoon; it soon liquefied in the hot oil.
To this I added 1/3 cup (80 ml) white wine and boiled it down for a couple of minutes before adding 2/3 cup (160 ml) tomato sauce and simmering gently for, say, five minutes; if it gets too thick, don’t worry: pasta-cooking water will adjust the consistency before dinner’s on the table. Check for seasoning; if it needs salt, it’ll need only a little, and I’d be disinclined to use pepper in this dish, though you might feel that’s a trifle puritanical of me. Fish out the garlic clove and discard it (or spread it on a crust of bread for a snack).
This sauce stay as it is, off the heat, until the pasta is boiling. I used rigatoni; other short tubular pasta shapes would work too. Long pasta (bucatini or thick spaghetti) would not be incongruous but would be harder to eat with the chunks of fish that will soon make their appearance. Don’t overdo the pasta portion: there’s plenty of fish and sauce.
Yes, the fish: Cut it into chunks approximating half-inch (generous centimeter) cubes and salt it lightly. A couple of minutes after the pasta goes into the boiling water stir the fish into the sauce, which you will have reheated. It will need four or five minutes of simmering, depending on the size of your chunks (taste a piece after four minutes). At this point you may need to dip into the pasta pot and thin the sauce with water.
As usual, when the pasta is very nearly done, drain it not too thoroughly, fold it into the sauce, and stir gently (so as not to damage the fish) over low heat until the pasta is as you like it. Adjust the consistency with pasta-boiling water and finish with chopped parsley and a drizzle of your best olive oil.
I figured that this would be delicious, and it was. But it was also more elegant than it reads; it would work well in half (or even quarter) portions for a dinner party first course, and the fact that the sauce base can be made in advance makes this practicable. On the other hand, it does not cloy when served as a one-dish dinner – which is how Jackie and I ate it.