Agghiotta di Pesce Spada (Sicilian Braised Swordfish With Tomatoes and Olives)

Why It Works

  • Thick swordfish steaks aren’t traditional in this dish, but they aren’t nearly as likely to overcook as thin ones.
  • Cooking the swordfish mostly on one side allows for good browning and flavor development without overcooking.

When I grilled some swordfish steaks for friends this past summer, one declared it the best swordfish she’d ever had, then asked me for my secret. I shrugged, pointed up the road towards the fishmonger where I’d bought it, and said, “That’s a great fish market, and they know how thick to slice a piece of swordfish.” And let me tell you, those swordfish steaks were really thick.

This is one way in which I diverge from the culinary norms of Italy, where, at least when I’ve seen it, the swordfish is often cut into much thinner steaks measuring less than one inch. To me, a swordfish steak is just like any other steak: It dries out when you overcook it, so you need a piece that’s thick enough that it doesn’t grow dry and chalky in the time it takes to put a good sear on it. That means a swordfish steak that’s at least one-and-a-half inches thick.

There are plenty of other ways I’m more than willing to borrow from Italy, though, and this easy, flavorful tomato sauce is one of them. Served with swordfish, the dish goes by various names, including agghiotta di pesce spada (“swordfish done in the glutton’s style”), pesce spada alla messinese (“Messina-style swordfish”), and the more general pesce spada alla siciliana (“Sicilian-style swordfish”). I can’t figure out why this particular dish got linked with a glutton, given that it’s relatively light fare. Maybe some gluttons are more restrained than me.

Gluttons aside, it’s delicious. This sauce varies from cook to cook, but most versions are built on olive oil, fresh tomatoes, garlic or onion, briny olive, and salty capers. Some recipes add pine nuts, some raisins, and some both. In the winter months, you can still make this just as easily with canned tomatoes.

To cook the swordfish, I use a technique called unilateral cooking, in which a piece of food is cooked mostly or entirely on just one side. It can be particularly helpful with many kinds of fish, where the flesh can reach doneness before the surface has taken on good color. A flour dredge also helps build color on the steaks.

After cooking the fish, you make the sauce right in the same skillet. I tried making it with both fresh and canned tomatoes, and preferred the fresh in this context, though as I wrote above, canned still works well out of season (it’s also what’s shown in the photos because they were taken in the winter).

I also played around with various inclusions, preparing the sauce with either garlic or onion, and with and without both pine nuts and raisins. The raisins are a common Sicilian ingredient in savory dishes (e.g., caponata and spaghetti con le sarde), frequently helping to create the agrodolce (“sweet-sour”) flavor that’s so common in Southern Italian cooking. I decided to leave them out of the final version of this recipe, since I didn’t want too strong of a sweet-sour flavor, instead taking a more subtle approach by relying on sweet sautéed onions and the tomatoes to provide that fruity note. If you want, and if your tomatoes will be improved by it (they can vary so much in flavor and tartness, so it will really depend on what you’re using), you can finish this sauce with a teaspoon or two of red wine vinegar and a pinch of sugar; totally optional, but worth considering when you taste the sauce before serving.

As for the capers, I know it’s a lot easier to find them packed in vinegar, and if that’s all you can find, you can use that product here. But I’d encourage everyone to track down Italian salt-packed capers if at all possible. They’re more salty than they are pickle-y (the olives add enough brine to the sauce on their own), and have a more pronounced vegetal flavor that works so well in this sauce.

In the end, the sauce should be fruity and subtly sweet, with mild pops of briny olives, salty capers, and nutty toasted pine nuts. And easy as it is, it’s enough of an act of cooking that when your friends ask you how you made such delicious swordfish, you’ll have a little more to say than just praising the fishmonger.

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