Tomato and garlic poached fish–also known as acqua pazza–is proof positive that fish doesn’t have to be fried or smothered in anything to be comfort food. Moist, flaky fish is perfectly cooked in a rich, garlicky, slightly spicy tomato broth. I add kalamata olives for a bit of briny kick and serve the fish over oven-toasted crostini. It’s also easy enough for weeknights!
I don’t know about you, but I was mostly raised with fish that was breaded and fried or smothered in sour cream and dill. It wasn’t until my 20s that I discovered a whole new world of fish preparations – grilled, smoked, slow-roasted, poached – and I’ve been a fish enthusiast ever since. It’s a good thing, too, since fishing happens to be a favorite pastime in our house. We usually have a freezer full of fish, and knowing a variety of ways to cook it is key to getting through it all before the next big trip.
Of all of the ways to cook fish, poaching is the last one I added to my repertoire. I’m not really sure why, especially now that I have this tomato and garlic poached fish recipe. It’s known as acqua pazza in Italy, which-amusingly-translates to “crazy water.” The thing I think is crazy about it is how easy and healthy it is, even though it seems rich and decadent. It has become one of my family’s favorite ways to eat fish.
How to choose the best fish for poaching
Poaching is an incredibly versatile way to cook fish. You can vary your poaching liquid, your aromatics, you can add herbs and citrus and vegetables and come up with your own concoction. And you can use almost any type of fish you want, although some will work better than others.
Typically the best fish for a dish like acqua pazza are firm, but not too meaty or oily. Some of my favorite poaching fish are halibut, cod, snapper, pollock, tilapia, and rockfish. You can poach the fish with the skin on or off, though if you have thin or more delicate cuts of fish, leaving the skin on will hold it together as it simmers.
Avoid poaching fish that are too delicate, such as sole, or meaty, like swordfish, tuna, or marlin. You could technically poach salmon or trout, but they are pretty oily and I have found that I prefer different preparations for oilier fish.
Whatever fish you try, be sure that it is labeled as wild (with a few exceptions), and that it is sourced from a sustainable fishery. To learn more about sustainable fishing practices, visit Monterey Aquarium's Seafood Watch page.
Question: What tomatoes are best to use in acqua pazza?
You can use fresh or canned tomatoes in this recipe, and they both turn out great! I’ve made tomato and garlic poached fish using both vine-ripe tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, which is the option I’ve used in this recipe. If you are short on time (or tomatoes), canned tomatoes work great too. You can use any diced canned tomatoes, or my personal favorite, which are canned cherry tomatoes from Mutti. If you do use canned tomatoes, add only half the salt to begin with, and taste and adjust the seasoning carefully, since the sodium levels in different brands of canned tomatoes can vary dramatically.
Tips for making the best tomato and garlic poached fish
- Adjust your cooking time according to the thickness of your fish. Obviously, fish come in a variety of shapes and thicknesses. Depending on what type of fish you use, you may need to adjust your cooking time. My fish pieces were all about 1½ “ thick, and took about 5 minutes to cook. For thinner cuts of fish, check your fish after 4 minutes, and for thicker fish, check after about 7 minutes.
- Choose a dry white wine. The white wine you use for this dish must be dry, not sweet or oaky. If you use a chardonnay, choose one that is unoaked. I typically use something like a sauvignon blanc or an inexpensive pinot gris. There’s no reason to raid your special wine collection for this recipe! If you prefer to cook without alcohol, I recommend using verjus, which is the pressed juice of unripened grapes.
- Short on time? Use canned tomatoes! I love using the Mutti canned cherry tomatoes in this dish, but any diced canned tomatoes will work. Be a little more cautious with your salt, though, since the sodium content in canned tomatoes varies dramatically. See the notes in the recipe for more detail.
Prep ahead and storage
This recipe is a great option for prepping ahead...you can make the sauce up to two days ahead, then heat it back up and add the fish when you are ready to eat. When you are prepping, cook the sauce a little bit less than the recommended time, then let it cool and refrigerate in a sealed container. To complete the dish, warm it slowly to a simmer, then add the fish and olives to finish it off.
Acqua pazza is surprisingly good as leftovers! Save the fish and the sauce together in an airtight container in the refrigerator without the bread. It should keep 2-3 days.
I use the microwave to reheat my leftovers, about 2 minutes on 50% power. I have also been known to throw a slice of bread in the toaster to eat with my reheated acqua pazza…easy peasy and quick.
I love hearing from you!
Questions, comments, and ratings are welcome and encouraged. Let me know what you think of this tomato and garlic poached fish! You’ll make my day!
Tomato and Garlic Poached Fish - Acqua Pazza
- 4 slices of crusty whole grain bread
- Extra virgin olive oil cooking spray
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 shallots peeled and thinly sliced
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and sliced
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 2 cups water
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes more or less to taste
- 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved or one 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
- 1 sprig fresh basil
- 1 pound firm white fish cut into 4 equal pieces
- Salt and freshly ground pepper for seasoning fish
- ¼ cup kalamata olives pitted and sliced in half (optional)
- Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Spray both sides of your bread slices with extra virgin olive oil cooking spray, and sprinkle them with a little salt. Add the slices to a sheet pan and set aside.
- Heat the olive oil in a deep 10-12 inch skillet or saute pan over medium heat. Add the shallots and saute until soft and translucent, 3-4 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for another minute, until fragrant.
- Pour in the wine and allow it to cook off for 2-3 minutes, until the alcohol smell has dissipated. Add the water, salt, and red pepper flakes, and a couple of cranks of black pepper, and return to a simmer.
- Add the tomatoes. Pull 3-4 leaves off of the sprig of basil and set aside to chiffonade for garnish. Add the rest of the sprig, stem and all, into the sauce with the tomatoes. Stir, then simmer for 15 minutes until the tomatoes are soft and cooked through, and the sauce has reduced by almost half.
- While the tomatoes simmer, put your bread pieces into the oven for 10 minutes, then take them out and use tongs or a spatula to turn them over. Return to the oven for 5 minutes, then add them to the bottoms of four shallow soup bowls.
- Season the fish with salt and pepper, then slip the pieces gently into the sauce and add the kalamata olives. Simmer for 5 minutes. Adjust the heat to keep it at a moderate simmer.
- After 5 minutes, turn off the heat and carefully check your fish for doneness. It will continue to cook in the sauce, so if it’s not yet done, just wait a few minutes and check again. The fish is done when it is flaky all the way through.Note: if you have very thick pieces of fish, you can hurry up cooking by turning your pieces over in the pan, then turning off the heat. They will continue to cook in the sauce. Check in 3-4 minutes for doneness.
- Top each piece of bread one with a piece of fish, then use a slotted spoon to top the fish with the tomatoes, shallots, and olives from the pan. Spoon a little broth around the bread and fish, and top with a chiffonade of basil. Drizzle with a bit of high quality olive oil, and enjoy!
- The sodium level in canned tomatoes varies widely, so if you use them, cut the salt back to ¼ teaspoon. Taste and adjust your seasoning before adding the fish.
- For pieces of fish that are thinner than 1½ inches, check for doneness after 4 minutes. For pieces thicker than 2 inches, check after about 7 minutes.
- Fish can be poached with or without the skin on. For more delicate fish or thinner pieces, leave the skin on to hold the fish together.