I am sitting here in my office right now, the sky as dull as a washed-out t-shirt outside the window, rain leaking from above, feeling very far away indeed from the sultry colors in the photo above. In fact, it almost feels sort of cruel to post it; it's like a taunt from the last beautiful days of summer, strutting around all triumphant in fancy heels and a perfect summer dress, while you - autumn - have given up and retreated to the bedroom in saggy sweatpants and itchy woolen socks. Let's kick summer in the teeth, shall we? Now is the time of apple picking and pretty scarves, Sunday afternoons at the movies and hard work, after all. Nothing to be ashamed of!
Also, summer, this sauce doesn't belong to you.
Okay, so remember my friend Alessandro? His mother, Gabriella, is quite possibly the very best cook I know, and I happen to be blessed with a lot of good cooks in my life. She is from Bologna, the culinary heart of Italy, and she creates magic at her stove, from delicate breadcrumb soups to lusty pigeon sauces and briny octopus-potato salads. She's the woman who taught me how to make real ragù Bolognese and a mean lasagna.
Also, ragù di pesce. Fish sauce, if you're wondering. Though "fish sauce" sounds rather...fishy, and wan. Like something beige and sticky you'd see napped on boiled potatoes so old they've grown skin at a German university canteen. And the fish sauce, er, ragù di pesce (pronounced rah-GOO dee PESH-eh) I'm talking about is a spicy, briny, fantastical thing that you toss with spaghetti, grabbing your heart at first bite.
It is my not-so-secret hope that one day, I will be able to spend enough time in Gabriella's kitchen that she'll cook her way through her entire canon with me. In August, we started modestly: with grilled, stuffed tomatoes (I'm saving the recipe, my darlings, for the book) and this ragù. (Well, there were also a tray of gratinéed mussels and grilled fresh anchovies, tossed in herbed breadcrumbs, but those were more incidental lessons than anything else. Still, are you hungry yet? I just had breakfast and my stomach is growling.) And because sharing is giving, it is too good to keep to myself. May your September be rich in ragù di pesce!
You begin, appropriately, with the fish. At the fish market in the next town over from the village where my mother and our friends live, near the Adriatic coast of Italy, you can buy a little mixture specially made by the fishmongers for ragù. It's got bits of salmon and monkfish, tiny shucked clams, chopped squid, and some shrimp cut into it. You can make your own fish mix in places without such a lovely service by simply buying a couple of different fillets of fish, a few shrimp and octopus, and a handful of clams, and then chopping and shucking everything up at home. You'll want about a pound in total.
To make things a little special, you can also buy some fancy scampi to serve on top of the plate of spaghetti. But that's just if you have guests that you really want to impress. If it's just a regular old Tuesday night, skip this step. Gabriella also bought cannochie, a specialty of that part of the Adriatic. I'd never seen them anywhere else before, but the Internet says they're called mantis shrimp in English. Have you ever heard of them? Anyway, they look sort of goofy and they're spiny to no end, but once you get past their shell, the flesh is sweet and fresh and almost lobster-like in consistency. Except, there's a lot less of it.
Are you the kinds of people to do a proper mise en place before you start cooking? I always wish I would be, but I never am. New Year's resolutions and so on, let's make pretend we're doing a mise. Assemble an onion, some garlic cloves, a big pile of minced fresh parsley, two or three plum tomatoes, a bottle of white wine, a box of spaghetti, some hot red pepper, salt, and...the fish? I think that's it.
Now, feeling all virtuous with your organization skills, put on an apron and finely dice the onion and a garlic clove or two. In a wide, deep pan, sauté them togther gently in olive oil, along with several spoonfuls of the minced parsley. You want this mixture to get wonderfully fragrant, but without burning. So monitor the heat and keep moving everything around the pan.
When it's done, about 7 minutes later, add the chopped fish mixture and stir well to distribute the oil and onion and garlic and herbs. Let that cook for a few minutes, stirring almost constantly, until you see the very edges of the shrimp start to go gray.
Add the scampi and mantis shrimp, if using, and then add about a cup of dry white wine. Mix well and let it cook down for several minutes. In the meantime, seed and chop two plum tomatoes. Actually, three. Pour yourself a glass of that white wine.
Add the tomatoes to the pan and stir. If it's looking like it needs a little more color, add a few spoonfuls of pureed canned tomatoes. And salt. A good amount! More than you think. Gabriella says that's the trick about seafood, it needs a lot of salt. And a nice pinch of red pepper flakes, if you want a little heat. (I always do.)
Let the sauce come to a low boil and busy yourself with other things for a little while, like filling a pot with water for the spaghetti (the sauce as depicted here makes enough for a 454-gram box, which should be plenty for four to five people) and bringing it to a boil. Set the table, if you don't have small children to do it for you, or if your spouse is busy making the rest of dinner on the grill in the garden, teaching that girl with the camera his most precious secrets.
When the sauce is, well, saucy, meaning, when the sloshiest part of the liquid has reduced, and the sauce feels thickish, about 10 minutes later, turn off the heat, stir in the rest of the parsley, taste for seasoning and then deal with boiling the spaghetti. As a visual aide, the sauce should look about it how it does in the first photo of this post. When the spaghetti is nice and al dente, drain it and add it to the pan with the ragù, tossing to distribute the little bits of fish and sauce evenly. You want to work quickly so that the spaghetti doesn't turn gummy. It'll absorb a bit of the sauce's liquid in the hot pan, which makes for forkfuls that truly taste of the sea.
Command everyone to the table. In fact, if you got them well-trained, they'll know to be waiting, fork in hand, napkin in lap, raptly for you to dish steaming hot plates of spaghetti up in front of them.
The fish bits fall apart in the sauce, infusing the tomato sauce with briny flavor. The wine gives depth to the sauce, which is, as these things go, quite a contender for fancy fast food. The parsley adds freshness and a bit of color. But really, calling out the individual elements of the dish is sort of beside the point, because what makes this so delicious and special is how it all comes together on the plate.
And even though it's possible to make this ragù at any point during the year now, I think it tastes best when eaten with eyes closed, dreaming of the summer, remembering skin hot from the beach, hearing crickets chirping at night.