As for the Calabrian part of the name? It’s because the seasoning is inspired by the flavours of Calabria: chillies and particularly nduja, the intensely-flavoured salami paste from the region that’s rising in popularity in the foodie world. Stuffed in focaccias, dolloped on pizzas, mixed into pasta sauces, this fiery spread has big, bold flavours and a little bit goes a long way.
So, as you might have guessed, this is a fish pasta that is big on flavor. I love that it tastes exotic and restaurant-y but it’s economical and easy!
Ingredients in this Fish Ragu Pasta
Here’s what you need to make this.
1. THE FISH
Key to this pasta is the spice mix for the fish. As mentioned earlier, the flavors in this fish pasta are based on the seasoning on nduja which is a type of salami. So, think – fennel and paprika with a hit of spiciness. Bold is the word that comes to mind!
BEST FISH FOR THIS PASTA
Any firm white fish fillets (skinless and boneless) can be used in this recipe. Here are some suggestions: snapper, John or Silver dory, barramundi, bream, tilapia, pollock, cod, flathead, perch, ling, bass, basa, hake, hoki, monkfish (pricey here, so I reserve for other uses like this recipe). If using frozen, thaw thoroughly and pat dry before using.
I recommend avoiding:
- Fish that dry out easily when cooked – Like swordfish, tuna, bonito, kingfish, marlin.
- Delicate and thin-filleted fish – Like flounder, sole, plaice, turbot, whiting. The texture of the flesh is a bit too delicate for this type of cooking.
- Oily fish – Like sardines or mackerel. A bit too overwhelming, flavours don’t quite match.
THE CALABRIAN SPICES
- Whole fennel and black peppercorns – These are toasted then ground, for maximum flavour impact. I would not ask you to make the effort to toast and grind if I really didn’t believe it was worth it. It is! However, I have substitutions in the recipe notes for ground fennel and pepper, if that’s all you have.
- More spices – Nutmeg, paprika, chilli flakes (red pepper flakes). Feel free to dial back the chilli if you’re concerned about spicineess.
2. IN THE PASTA AND THE SAUCE
- Pasta – Any long strand thinnish pasta is ideal here. I use fettuccine.
- Tomato passata – This is pureed, strained pure tomatoes, sometimes labelled “tomato puree” in the US . It’s readily available in Australian supermarkets nowadays, alongside pasta sauces. It costs around the same as canned tomato. Passata is excellent for making thick, smooth sauces and soups without a long simmer time like required to break down crushed tomato. A regular in my recipes! More on tomato passata here.
- Tomato paste – A boost of tomatoey flavour and to help thicken the sauce.
- Garlic – Because, garlic. Rarely do savoury recipes happen around here without garlic!
- Parsley and parmesan – garnishes. I know parmesan isn’t strictly traditional in Italian fish and seafood pastas. But, it works. We’re not after loads of parmesan cheesiness. It just adds saltiness.
Pangrattato is an Italian chunky breadcrumb topping that adds an addictive crunch and flavor to pasta dishes and salads. I particularly like it with this fish ragu as it adds great texture and is a terrific contrast to the soft fish.
- Bread – Use a denser bread like sourdough, ciabatta etc which have structure and go really crunchy when toasted. Lightweight sandwich bread is a little too delicate and kind of just dissolves into powder, bypassing the crunch completely. BUT – if sandwich bread is all you have, I’d still go ahead! Or, substitute with panko breadcrumbs.
- Oil and salt – To make it crunchy and salty.
How to make fish ragu
As mentioned earlier, this is a ragu but it doesn’t have to be slow cooked for hours! In fact, if you can multi-task, you’ll get this on the table in just over 20 minutes.
1. PANGRATTATO FIRST
Get the pangrattato in the oven first. Toss the bread in olive oil and salt, then bake in a 180°C / 350°F (160°C fan-forced) oven for 10 minutes until crisp all the way through.
. CALABRIAN SPICED FISH NEXT
Next up, toast the spices and coat the fish in the tasty flavours.
- Toast the fennel and black peppercorns for a couple of minutes until it smells fragrant and you can see the fennel is lightly browned. Use a large deep skillet or pot, something large enough to toss the pasta with the sauce later. No oil required at this stage.
- Grind the spices using a mortar and pestle, or a grinder.
- Coat the fish with the ground fennel and peppercorns, nutmeg, chilli flakes, sugar, salt, olive oil plus the tomato paste.
- Once coated, set aside while you prep the other ingredients. No need to marinate.
3. MAKING THE PASTA
The pasta sauce takes around the same time to cook as the pasta so you can make both at the same time.
- Boil pasta for the time per the packet directions minus 1 minute. It should be al dente – cooked through but still a slight firm but. It will soften more as it cooks through more when tossed with the pasta sauce.Scoop out about 1 1/2 cups of pasta cooking water. We will need this for the pasta tossing at the end.
- Cook fish – Sauté the garlic until golden, then add the fish (scrape out every bit of the paste!) and cook for 2 minutes.
- Add the tomato passata and simmer for 5 minutes.
- The fish ragu sauce – This is what it looks like before the tossing process starts. Notice how the fish pieces are still whole at this stage. Some of the pieces will flake and break when we toss with the pasta, some will stay mostly whole. I find that texture the most appealing for me.What we don’t want is for all the fish to disintegrate. It’s so much nicer to have fish chunks so you know you’re eating fish rather than unidentifiable mush!
- Add reserved pasta cooking water and simmer for a further 2 minutes. The pasta cooking water has starch in it which makes the sauce thicken so it clings to the pasta strand. You will see in the next step!
- Toss with pasta – Then add the pasta and most of the parlsey. Toss, still on the stove, for 1 minute or until the pasta strands are stained red and all the fish ragu is clinging to the pasta strands rather than pooled in the pan.If the pasta gets too thick (excessively enthusiastic tossing, heat too high are typical causes), just add a splash of extra pasta cooking water to thin it out and give it another good toss!
- Now, it’s ready for serving. Twirl into bowls and cover liberally with a shower of the crunchy pangrattato and finish with parmesan!