Swordfish Inspired by the Mezzogiorno

The Mezzogiorno, a term used to describe Southern Italy, is “hot, dry and sea-girt, wracked by earthquake and eruption.” It is “the furthest part of Italy from Europe and the nearest to the rest of the world.” So opens Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily, a chilling look at the role of the Mafia in Sicily at the end of the 20th century.¹ It’s odd, but when I see Pesce Spada or swordfish for sale at the fishmongers, I think of Midnight in Sicily and then I recall Palermo. These three things are always interconnected in my mind- fish, book, place. Before visiting Palermo in 2000, I had never eaten this species of fish. I do now, but only rarely, when the pale pink slices look seasonally tempting and I know the fish monger well enough to ask him to slice the steak horizontally into two much thinner slices. I like my swordfish really thin, a little like a large flattened schnitzel. They are then fried quickly and briefly and served in the Palermitano way, that is in salmoriglio, with a mere dribble of a sauce made from finely chopped oregano, parsley, garlic, capers, lemon zest and olive oil. In winter when fresh oregano is on the wane, I make a robust sauce of pounded rosemary, garlic, lemon zest, salt and olive oil.  Served with a neat pile of lightly cooked spinach, a wedge of lemon and a few waxy potatoes, I’m back to Palermo again.

Pece Spada con Salsa di Rosmarino
Pesce Spada con Salsa di Rosmarino

With the rest of my piece of Swordfish, as one slice is always too much for one meal, I concoct a little Spaghetti Puttanesca. There is much debate about the origin of this dish with its amusing name involving a prostitute. It seems that it was invented in the 1960s, not by the busy whore or puttana of the title, but by a restaurateur on Ischia, who, short of ingredients, threw this dish together, in response to some customers who demanded  ‘Facci una puttanata qualsiasi.’ (make whatever rubbish you have).² Some essentials are garlic, some canned chopped tomato, but not too much juice which makes the pasta swim, a few chopped capers and black olives, parsley or basil, and anchovies. Sometimes I start my version with one finely chopped onion cooked down in olive oil, then I add the chopped garlic, and then small cubes of swordfish. When these components are just cooked, the odds and ends are added in order, then in goes the cooked pasta for a quick toss around in the sauce, then the chosen fresh herb. In the spirit of the original, it is thrown together. I am a working girl too, in cucina e nell’orto!

Spaghetti Putanesca con Pesce Spada
Spaghetti Putanesca con Pesce Spada

These two fish meals for two were based on 450 gr piece of swordfish (AU$11.00). After it was sliced thinly, the first meal was portioned at of around 135 gr each, and the rest went into the pasta dish the following day. Supermarket pre-cut portions of fish are too large, usually around 220 gr per piece. Fishmongers will usually oblige and cut your fish the way you like it which is another good reason to avoid supermarkets and stores with pre-packaged plastic wrapped food.

  • ¹ Midnight in Sicily, Peter Robb 1996
  • ² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaghetti_alla_puttanesca

32 thoughts on “Swordfish Inspired by the Mezzogiorno”

  1. Delicious… So simple but I can almost taste it… I agree about the size of the fish portions at supermarkets and you really don’t know how long they have been on the ice 🙂
    Thanks for sharing!
    Liz x

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    1. Yes true Liz. I think most fishmongers have a very good understanding of their specialist field and know how to cut fish, how old it is, fillet to order, hand over the bones for stock and so on. None of these things happen in supermarkets.

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  2. I’ve been eating swordfish nearly all my life and is one of my top favourite fishes. I love how you’ve make the thin “almost schnitzel” slices with a salsa verde. Perfect portion! And, yes, scraps (like my fishmonger sells) are brilliant in pasta, but also in British fish pies.

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    1. Love scraps. What I don’t like is the way the fish is portioned here in Australia- just too large! Same with pre- portioned meats- no wonder there is an obesity problem here. Less is more for me.
      There is also some suggestion that swordfish contains higher levels of mercury, along with shark which is popular in Australia, so I limit my lust for this fish.

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      1. I remember times in my childhood when both swordfish and fresh tuna would be withdrawn from the market because of those mercury levels. Best to have other fish most of the time – nice oily ones like sardines and mackerel – and save swordfish (which is also more expensive) for an occasional treat. Still, you stretched out the ingredients for two fab meals!

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  3. I’ve only had Swordfish once but since I found out that its one of the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) priority species – i.e. one of the most ecologically and culturally important species on our planet & requiring protection – I no longer buy it. Thanks for sharing your recipes though, the Spaghetti Puttanesca looks v tasty and I guess could be made with a different fish?

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    1. I did a quick check here too-. Different cautions apply to different areas in the world. The Australian sustainability guide I use recommends ” Swordfish is a highly migratory species, fished throughout its range in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans and in the Mediterranean Sea. The amber ‘Eat Less’ ranking is the result of an assessment of the Australian fisheries that catch swordfish. ” and “There is some uncertainty around the stock status of swordfish, particularly along the eastern coast of Australia, but scientists have assessed that both the stocks of swordfish taken in Australian-managed fisheries operating on the eastern and western coastlines are likely healthy. Fisheries data does suggest that fishing pressure is possibly too high in the Pacific Ocean, which could lead to an overfished stock in future.”
      So I will eat ‘less’ as recommended. It suggests substituting Mahi- Mahi, although I have never seen this in Melbourne.

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  4. A beautiful in word and pictures post Mrs Italian. Like you, I eat swordfish rarely and prefer it thinly and only ever from a trusted fishmonger. I always ask to smell it first as it starts to give off a strong ammonia smell when it is getting old. Love these recipes. Love.

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  5. Excellent. I’ve always found “puttanesca” very amusing as well, thank you for the origin. I wonder if my amore knows about this. Pesce spada (like pesce cane, which I found a most amazingly funny name for a shark) is another new favourite of mine. However, I have not yet visited any part of Italy to the south of Roma. A new world, I’m sure.

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    1. I am always more partial to white wine- maybe a Pinot Grigio but in the red line I fancy a Sangiovese from the King Valley. Hope you approve.
      Of course you could bring a tasty drop from New Zealand. I remember drinking my way around the north island in 2014 and 2013. We were looking for a bad wine and couldn’t find one. We don’t drink Sauvignon Blanc ever ( and I know that New Zealand is famous for it) so please bring something else.

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  6. Your swordfish brings back nice memories for me of a peaceful time following a non-peaceful time when I lived on my own and on Sunday nights would barbeque myself a small piece of swordfish to go with mango salsa and salad 🙂
    We buy from familiar fishmongers and now prefer other sorts including Mahi-Mahi and Jewfish, which would be lovely with your green sauce, but always save some leftovers of any seafood for pasta with a light tomato & shallot cream sauce.

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    1. I had Mahi- Mahi often in Bali and grew to love it. they grilled it on hot coals ( discarded and burnt coconut shells) and basted them with some spicy marinade. I haven’t seen it here- maybe it goes under another name.

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        1. Thanks for finding the link, Ella- Goodfish badfish is such a useful site. The best thing is it is relevant to Australian waters and then even breaks it down into states.

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