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Mixed Fried Fish, or Il Fritto Misto di Pesce: Quick and Easy

Fish Fry: Enjoy!

Fish Fry: Enjoy!

If you have a deep fat fryer, fried fish is one of the easiest and quickest dishes one could possibly imagine, and wonderfully refreshing in the summer months. But there are a few requirements.

The fish must be absolutely fresh: Since there are no sauces — merely a little lemon and some salt — the flavor comes from the fish. Also, the oil must be fresh: Fresh oil does not impart flavors or aromas, and has a higher smoke point than oil that has already been used.

Fish Fry: Flouring the Fish

Fish Fry: Flouring the Fish

In this photo Alfonso Borrelli is flouring a mixture of squid rings and slices of swordfish fillet, which may sound extravagant, but are what the Osteria L’Antica Quercia had  – he was preparing the dish before the daily delivery of fresh fish, which takes place in the afternoon, to have it as fresh as possible for the evening’s diners. As a general rule he also adds peeled deveined shrimp, and small fry, tiny whole fish.

The flouring process is simple: Put small handfuls of fish in a fairly coarse strainer, and pull the strainer up through a bowl of flour while gently shaking it from side to side; the flour will coat the pieces evenly and the excess will fall away.

Mixed Fried Fish, or Il Fritto Misto di Pesce: Quick and Easy

Fish Fry: Frying!

Fish Fry: Frying!

The next step is to fry the fish. Alfonso uses a restaurant-sized frier, which is capable of frying larger batches. But a home frier will work just as well; set the oil temperature for 380 F (190 C) and fry the fish in small batches, for about 4-5 minutes — you will learn precise timing with experience.

While the fish is frying, Quarter several lemons, and lay sheets of absorbent paper – what’s called Carta Gialla, “yellow paper” in Italy, which is traditionally used to wrap foods – on the plates you’ll be serving the fish on (or your serving platter). The paper will look nice, absorb any oil still remaining on the fish, and also insulate the fish from the plate or platter, keeping it warmer.

Fish Fry: Turning Out the Fish

Fish Fry: Turning Out the Fish

When the time is up — 4-5 minutes — drain the fish well, turn it out onto the platter, lightly salt it, and enjoy!

The wine?  We had a Greco di Tufo from Mastroberardino, and it was perfect.

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Grilled Fish, Pesce alla Griglia

Fish on the Grill!

Fish on the Grill!

A grill and a fine fish are a marriage made in heaven. To serve four to six as a second course, or two to four as a main course, you’ll need:

  • 1 or more fish weighing a total between 2 and three pounds, cleaned, scaled, and lightly scored, or slices of a large fish, for example swordfish.
  • 1/2 cup of marinade made with olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and a few leaves of minced rosemary, bay leaf, or the herb you prefer (optional).
  • A folding grate to put the fish in, if you have it.

Briefly marinate the fish, slipping some of the herbs and lemon slices into the cavity as well.

Preheat the grill or start the fire long enough ahead to let the coals burn down.

Set the fish over the coals, basting it with the marinade as it cooks; the use of a folding grate with a hinge opposite the handle makes the fish easier to flip, and allows you to prepare several small fish at once.

Continue cooking till the flesh parts easily and the skin is crispy; in terms of a cooking time, figure 10 minutes per inch (2.5 cm) of thickness of the fish, measured at its thickest point.

“Grilled” fish can also be done in the oven. Marinate it as above, and set it in a pan with just a drop of oil. Roast in a very hot (450 F, 220 C) oven, flipping carefully when it is half-cooked.

How To Select A Fish and Estimate How Long To Cook It

Fresh Fish Look Bright

Fresh Fish Look Bright

There’s nothing worse than overripe fish.

Here’s how to avoid it, and how to estimate how long you should cook what you buy.

Appearance is important, but the first sense to trust is smell: A fresh fish won’t smell fishy.

Look at the scales. They should be bright, and colorful. If the fish’s skin looks dull it’s old.

Touch the fish. It should feel firm, not soft, and your fingertip shouldn’t leave an impression.

The brightly colored fish here are dentici, dentex in English, whereas the skinned fish are anglerfish, which are often sold this way because of their appearance when whole.

Fresh Fish Have bright Eyes, and Look Back As You

Fresh Fish Have bright Eyes, and Look Back As You

Selecting a Fish: Look it in the Eye

Look the fish in the eyes. They should be clear and dark, as if it’s looking back at you, and ready to dart off. No white at all.

These sardoni, slightly larger cousins of sardines, were caught in the Adriatic Sea off Rimini and reached Rimini’s fish market within hours.

A Sunken Eye

A Slightly Cloudy Sunken Eye

An older fish’s eye will begin to cloud and sink.

Unfortunately, you’ll only find perfectly bright eyes when the fish is unloaded from the boat and taken directly to market.

If the eyes are slightly cloudy (like these), but the fish doesn’t smell, the fish was transported after it was caught (or came from further away) but is still good.

This grouper, for example, was caught off Sicily and sold in Rimini, several hundred miles away. It therefore spent at least a day in transit.

If the eyes are cloudy white, or, even worse, sunken and cloudy white, select a different fish or plan to serve something else.

A Fresh Fish will Have Red Gills

A Fresh Fish will Have Red Gills

Check the gills. They should be bright red, like these.

Does your fish pass inspection?

Have the fishmonger clean it for you immediately, because the guts of a dead fish will taint the flesh around them.

When you get it home, refrigerate it. Remember that fish is highly perishable, and that you should thus cook it as soon as possible, at the most within 24 hours.

Fresh Fish: Orata, Red Mullet & Scampi

Fresh Fish: Orata, Red Mullet & Scampi

To Determine The Cooking Time Of a Fish:

Measure the fish at its thickest point; calculate 10 minutes for every inch (2.5 cm) of thickness.

For example, roast a 4-inch thick fish 40 minutes, or grill a 2 1/2-inch thick fish 25 minutes, about 12 per side.

Calculations are fine, but you should also keep in mind this empirical method for determining doneness:

Stick a toothpick into the thickest part of the fish, near the backbone. If the flesh is no longer translucent and flakes easily, it is done.

A Couple Of Tips:

1. Remember, the fishmonger’s job is to sell fish. Trust is fine, but keep your eyes open.

2. Don’t overcook the fish, lest it become dry and its texture suffer.

Thinking about Brodetto: The Costa Romagnola’s Signature Dish

Pellegrino Artusi, the great 19th century cookbook author, mentions Brodetto in passing in La Scienza in Cucina e L’Arte di Mangiar Bene, but not to give the recipe. Rather, he was peeved by the variability of the Italian spoken in his day:

Cacciucco! Let me say something about this word, which is probably not understood except in Tuscany and along the Tyrrhenian coast, since the word brodetto takes its place in the towns along the Adriatic. In Florence, on the other hand, brodetto is an egg soup served at Easter, made by crumbling bread in broth and thickening the mixture with beaten eggs and lemon juice. The confusion between these and other similar sounding words from province to province in Italy is so bad that it wouldn’t take much to make a second Babel.

“Now that our country is unified, the unification of spoken Italian, which few promote and many hinder, perhaps because of misplaced pride, or perhaps because they are comfortable with their dialects, seems to me a logical consequence.”

He was of course right about the linguistic confusion; a study carried out in 1870 estimated that only 5% of the people then living in Italy spoke Italian — everyone else spoke dialect of one sort or another, and even today, with the unifying effects of television, you can meet people of the elder generation who are much more comfortable speaking what they spoke with their grandparents than they are speaking modern Italian.

And why, you wonder, doesn’t Artusi give a recipe for brodetto? He was after all from Romagna and grew up not far from the Adriatic. The answer, not to mince words, is that it was poor people’s food, what the fishermen made on the boats from fish with little market value, and their wives, who peddled the catch, made at home from what hadn’t sold, and Artusi was writing for a middle class audience that would have sneered at it (cacciucco enjoyed greater repute).

Times have changed, however, and now modern Italians who live along the Riviera Romagnola (the Adriatic coast north and south of Rimini) are developing an interest for the dish. Not that this makes finding a true brodetto in one of the Riviera’s many restaurants any easier, because true brodetto is shockingly simple, and restaurant cooks (and many home cooks) find the temptation to jazz it up irresistible.

Simply put, the first rule for making brodetto is that the fish must be absolutely fresh. Small, spiny, ugly, doesn’t matter — it has to be flavorful and fresh. Thawed won’t work, nor will something taken off the boat yesterday morning.

The second rule is that the fish should be local; the fish that go into brodetto vary from town to town along the Riviera Romagnola, but include (among others): Cuttlefish, gray mullet, reef mullet, mackerel, bogue, striped mullet, mantis shrimps (when in season, and some purists shudder at them), crabs, and sole. If possible the fish should be washed in sea water, but you should only do this if you know your water is uncontaminated.

Mussels and clams can go into a brodetto, but often do not (family members not on the boats or selling the fish used to gather clams on the beaches to make clam stew), while scampi and other more prized crustaceans would never have gone into a traditional brodetto — they’d have been sold.

Likewise, a traditional brodetto would not have contained anything exotic, or that had to be shipped in. One thing the fishing families did do to increase the flavor of their brodetto was to gather the heads of the fish they sold, boil them separately, and add the resulting rich broth to the brodetto pot.

Spicing and seasoning? It varied from town to town, but was simple, as the fishing families had to barter with farmers for herbs: Olive oil was a constant, and one could also find onions, garlic, parsley, vinegar (often substituted for by dry white wine), a little salt, and abundant freshly ground pepper. Tomato paste and tomato sauce (used sparingly) didn’t appear until the mid-late 1800s, and the use of hot pepper is even more recent.

Cooking vessels and times? Tradition dictates one use a low-sided broad round terracotta pot, and a gentle flame; Metal will of course also work, but will transmit the heat faster. As is the case with all mixed fish stews one adds the fish to the pot in succession, first the kinds that cook slowly and the larger pieces, and then smaller pieces and quickly cooking fish. Total cooking time will be a half hour or more.

Finally, serving: Romagnoli generally serve brodetto over slices of toasted bread that do a beautiful job of soaking up the drippings, and accompany it with Sangiovese di Romagna, a light lively red wine. The other option I might consider for a wine would be Trebbiano di Romagna, which is just as light and lively.

Some Recipes:

The Adriatic Fishermen’s Brodetto, Brodetto dei Pescatori dell’Adriatico

Brodetto is the traditional fish stew of Riviera Romagnola, what the fishing families would prepare from the fish they were unable to sell — fish that were small or bony, and didn’t have much market value. But they are tasty, and while the women prepared it at home, the men cooked it on the boats.

To serve 6:

  • 3 pounds (1 1/2 k) mixed fish  (kinds discussed below)
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) tomato sauce
  • 1/3 cup strong vinegar
  • Abundant parsley
  • 3 onions
  • 1 cup extravirgin olive oil
  • 5 cloves Garlic
  • Salt and pepper to taste

The fish should be what’s locally available, fresh, and inexpensive — no need for renowned exotics here. Rather, what is flavorful, and the fishermen use, among others, eel, sea mullet, flounder, squid, reef mullet, cuttlefish, and scorpion fish. Wash clean and scale the fish, cutting up the larger fish and leaving the smaller fish whole.

Mince the parsley and the garlic, and slice the onions. Put them in a large pot, with the olive oil, set the pot over a moderate flame, and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent gold. Add the tomato sauce, vinegar, and 1 1/4 cups (300 ml) boiling water. Season the mixture to taste with salt and pepper, cover the pot, and simmer for a half hour. Add the larger pieces of fish, cover and simmer for 10 minutes, and then the smaller pieces, recover the pot, and simmer everything for a half hour more.

Serve the brodetto over slices of bread that you have either toasted or fried in butter.

A few observations:

  • Though vinegar was traditionally used to flavor brodetto, many now prefer to add dry white wine.
  • There are a number of local variations along the Riviera Romagnola
  • In Cattolica they omit both parsley and vinegar.
  • In Riccione they omit the garlic, parsley, and onions, and let the sauce cool before they add the fish and return it to the fire; they sprinkle red wine into it.
  • In Cesenatico they omit the onion, vinegar, and wine.

You are free to follow local custom or not; I think I would go with all the ingredients.

About Brodetto and Other Brodetti