Ragu di Pesce Take 1 (and Fail)

On our recent trip to Italy, Brad and I spent a few magical days on the Ligurian Coast. Everywhere we went, we experienced local versions of ragu or sugo di pesce (the unglamorous English translation would be fish sauce). I’m not talking about bouillabaisse, nor the spicy, tomato-based, party-of-sea-creatures type of sauce you might be served over spaghetti. I am talking about the most delicate yet silky, sings-of-the-sea fish ragu that would accompany either a fresh, cut pasta or a fish ravioli.

These dishes were revelatory, each one unique and yet they all achieved the same simple perfection. I want nothing more than to be able to make a pasta dish such as this.

So I did some internet research. A google search for “fish ragu” turned up very little. A search for “ragu di pesce” turned up some promising recipes in Italian, but still none of them where what I was looking for. So I read a few, compared notes, called on my memory and decided to give it a try. The one thing I was certain of was that the fishy essence of this dish would rely on a sparing use of wine (not the generous amounts called for in the recipes I was seeing) and a homemade fish stock.

That's me, giving those Sea Robbins the old fish eye

I headed to the greenmarket fishmonger, Blue Moon, and asked if they might have some fish heads if I came early enough next week. But the woman who helped me told me people don’t make enough soup in the summer to make it worthwhile to transport them, so no. We discussed what I might do instead, and I eventually purchased 2 Sea Robbins (at a whopping $1.50/lb, they cost me $2.00).

At home I set to gutting them and removing the gills*, sliced off some little fillets which we treated Francine and Turtle (dog and cat, respectively) with later that night, and into the stock pot they went.

*If you can teach me how to really clean a fish – I’m talking guts, scales and gills, and I’d like to fillet it well too, I will cook that fish for you and it will taste good. ‘The Joy of Cooking’ is a good teacher, but I certainly lack artistry and it takes me FOREVER.

A scallop, the first contender

For the actual ragu, I chose scallops. I needed a firm fish (and in the afternoon my selection was limited), and I thought the sweetness would be the flavor I wanted. Eventually, I set to making the sauce. Without time for making fresh pasta, Brad recommended we use an awesome dried pasta we often use for winter pork ragu for this test run (good in theory, but in the end it was all wrong). I’ll spare you the details from here, except that I failed.

Not miserably, as the flavors where delicious, but that saucy silky magic? I just didn’t get there. I’m thinking next time I’ll use a bit less firm of a fish, maybe monkfish, I’ll cook it slower and lower, add more broth, and maybe a swirl of butter in the end. We’ll see.

On the upside, I’ve now got a freezer full of fish stock for a summer of experimentation. Ragu di pesce, I will have you yet.

Fish stock, stocked.

2 Responses to “Ragu di Pesce Take 1 (and Fail)”

  1. #

    Daughter Fish says:

    *I could teach you the secret ways of dressing fish, practiced by swarthy cannery workers and fishermen all along the west coast. But you have to learn the secret handshake first (which is even more difficult to master than gutting and scaling fish!). Also, do you think a sprinkle of corn starch might help give a satin finish to your broth?

    • #

      Heather says:

      Excellent. Let’s get fishy! And you may be right, but for some reason I always find myself avoiding cornstarch in recipes…

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