Simple Pleasures: Triglie alla Livornese
Few things to me are as perfect as a quickly, simply prepared whole fish, eaten on a balmy evening by the sea. After months of sweltering summer heat, the days have finally cooled down to the perfect temperature. I couldn’t think of a better way to enjoy a week off than this – perfect moments of simplicity, an empty beach and unexpectedly beautiful weather.
It’s just the right moment to be on a Tuscan beach if you ask me – the folly of beach-goers have long headed back to work in the city and many of the beach front shops and restaurants are closing for the coming winter. It’s beginning to empty out and become the ghost town that will see it through until the first weeks before Easter. But it’s the time I like it the best; we have the beach to ourselves.
We’re right in front of the sea in a slightly old-fashioned but down to earth town on the Etruscan coast in the province of Livorno. I have always loved Livorno for its rough-around-the-edges but genuine character, its people, the food and the atmosphere share these traits. The simple, hearty mariners’ dishes are made with the freshest, local produce: plenty of fish, beautiful, peppery green olive oil and wine that is made to be drunk with food and company. What more could you ask for?
Triglie alla Livornese (‘Livorno style red mullet’) is one of my favourite local dishes. It takes just seconds to prepare and only minutes to make. If you don’t have good tomatoes on hand, you can make this with canned tomato pulp and it’s not bad, though fresh, end of summer tomatoes are infinitely better.
One of the characteristics of Livornese cuisine is the use of red wine with fish dishes – consider that until recently this area did not grow white grapes or make white wine. If you were going to use local ingredients, try a Bolgheri red and a Suvereto olive oil. Coming from beautiful historic towns surrounded by the sea on one side and countryside drenched in Tuscan stereotypes like cypress and olive trees, rolling hills and sunflowers on the other; this is happy food.
Red mullet can be found year round in Italy but are at their best between September and December. Here, fishmongers sell really small red mullets (about 12 cm in length) that live around the rocks and are used for tasty fish soups and broths. The ones used for this dish are slightly bigger, but still small enough (perhaps about 18-20cm long) that you can cook them whole in a pan. They are a simple, cheap and very tasty fish with lovely white flesh. The key here is making sure they are whole, as you will get maximum flavour out of this very simple dish, however you could also do this with just the fillets if you cannot get them whole.
Triglie alla Livornese
For 4 people
- 4 whole, small red mullets, about 18-20cm long, gutted and scaled.
- 1 whole clove of garlic, squashed
- a glass of red wine
- 4 ripe tomatoes, or 400 gr can of chopped tomato pulp
- 1 fresh small chili
- flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped, to garnish
- extra virgin olive oil
Prepare the tomatoes by scoring the skin with a cross on their bottoms, then blanching them quickly (about 1 minute will do) in boiling water. Place them in a bowl of cold water and then you will easily be able to peel off their skins. Dice the tomatoes roughly.
The fish need to be kept whole, but gutted, scaled, pat dry and sprinkled on both sides with salt.
In a pan large enough to hold the 4 mullets, slowly heat the clove of garlic with some olive oil on low-medium heat. You’re slowing going to infuse the oil for a minute or two. Add the chili, chopped, with or without the seeds (as you prefer).
Add the tomatoes to the pan and stir, allow to cook on medium heat for another minute or two before adding the red wine. Let the liquid cook off for another minute and then add your whole fish into the pan. Cook them for about 2-3 minutes on each side, then take off the heat. Serve with fresh parsley, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and lots of crusty bread to mop up the juices.