There is something fishy about this post. See if you can find out what it is while you are reading. I’ll reveal the mystery at the end…
Many Italian pasta recipes will tell you to cook the pasta for a couple of minutes less than the time indicated on the package for al dente (which by the way is pronounced “al DENtuh” instead of “al denTAY”), and then finish cooking the pasta in the sauce. This technique “marries” the flavors and will make sure that all the pasta is covered with sauce. (This is also why the quality of pasta is measured, among other things, by how well a sauce adheres to it.) Pasta and sauce are usually served already mixed, not separate. If you mix the pasta with the sauce on your plate, it will cool off, it will be messy, and it won’t be mixed as well. The pasta may also clog together if you keep it too long without a sauce.
A technique that takes finishing cooking the pasta in the sauce one step further, is pasta “risottata”, or pasta cooked in the way of risotto. This means that the pasta is cooked in stock from the start, and more stock is added as needed during the cooking process. My blogging friend Bea is an advocate of this technique, and she published many recipes that use it on her blog Viaggiando con Bea. It has the same advantages of finishing to cook the pasta in the sauce, but it makes the sauce more creamy and the flavors marry even more.
It is also a bit more difficult to get it right. Especially when using “long” pasta like spaghetti, you need to use a wide thick-bottomed pan with good heat distribution, and you should start with a generous amount of stock. Once the pasta has become flexible, the amount of stock in which it cooks can be less. Otherwise, the pasta will break into small pieces and you won’t be able to roll it around your fork. (I hope you are not one of those people who cuts spaghetti into small pieces and then eats it with a spoon! Spaghetti is eaten with a fork only. In Italy, restaurants won’t even serve a knife or a spoon with a plate of spaghetti. Just a fork.)
To try the technique of spaghetti risottati, I prepared an adapted version of Spaghetti all’Aqua Pazza, spaghetti with fish and tomatoes. The main differences are that more stock is needed, and that the pasta is cooked only in the stock. The result was very nice, with a creamier sauce and a stronger flavor from the fish stock.
For 2 servings
150 grams (.33 lb) spaghetti
500 grams (1.1 lb) red mullet, filleted, heads and bones reserved
250 grams (.55 lb) cherry tomatoes
1 stick celery, chopped
1 small carrot, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 bay leaf
1 Tbsp minced flat leaf parsley
80 ml (1/3 cup) dry white wine
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp olive oil
Start by making the fish stock. Soak the heads and bones in cold water to remove any traces of blood and ‘off’ odours. Then put the heads and bones in a pot and cover with a litre (quart) of cold water.
Bring to a boil and remove the scum that will rise to the surface.
Add the carrot, celery, onion, and bay leaf. Reduce the heat to a simmer and simmer for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, cut the cherry tomatoes in half, put them in a baking dish and toss them with a tablespoon of olive oil. Bake them for half an hour in the oven at 175C/350F.
Rinse the fish fillets with cold water and pat them dry with paper towels, then season them with salt.
Cut the fish into bite-size pieces and refrigerate until needed.
Filter the fish stock with a fine sieve.
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan. Add a minced shallot and a minced garlic clove and stir them for a minute over medium heat. Do not allow the garlic to color.
Add 80 ml (1/3 cup) of dry white wine.
Add about half a liter (2 cups) of the fish stock and bring to a boil. Season with salt.
Add the spaghetti.
Keep the stock boiling gently, keep stirring carefully, and add more stock if needed. (Use water if you run out of stock.)
Add the parsley as well and gently stir, without breaking up the tomatoes. Turn off the heat.
Add the fish pieces.
Cover the pan and allow the fish to cook in the heat of the pasta. This will only take a couple of minutes.
Once the fish has turned white, it is cooked. Stir very gently so the fish and the tomatoes will stay in tact. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Serve on preheated plates.
What’s fishy about this post?
If you paid close attention to the photos, you probably noticed that I used two different pans. The photos start with a silver-colored pan, and end with a black non-stick pan. This is because my first attempt at making this dish, in a non-stick pan, didn’t go so well. I did not add enough stock in the beginning and the heat distribution of the pan was not good enough, so I had to use high heat and a lot of stirring to keep it boiling.
This photo shows what happened: the spaghetti broke up into short pieces. When I made the dish for the second time, I corrected my mistakes and used a better pan with great heat distribution, more stock in the beginning, and more gentle stirring. If you use enough stock and stir gently often enough, non-stick is not needed. I did not take photos of all the steps again, so for this post I ended up combining photos from the two sessions. That is what’s “fishy” about this post, other than the use of red mullet.
The herb “savory” is called “bonenkruid” (bean herb) in Dutch, which indicates it goes well with beans. This is true, as this pasta with green beans and savory pesto clearly demonstrates.