Pescespada dell’amore

From “Italy by Ingredient: Artisanal Foods / Modern Recipes”
by Viola Buitoni (Rizzoli, September 2023)

The emotional dimension of this dish is infinite in my life. In the long-ago summer lull of a boat, its fragrance wafting from below deck is the only thing that can keep my siblings and I still for more than five minutes. In my teen years, it finds a winter home in my newly divorced mother’s kitchen. As I enter adulthood and move to NY, I tinker with it in a tiny kitchen where, with time, the swordfish changes some and eventually gains its name as a witness to the beginning of my love for my husband.

I still remember the moment. Leonard Cohen was billowing about a man tied to a kitchen chair and I remember panicking that my too-small-for-a-chair kitchen wouldn’t be big enough to tie him down. I remember his hands between me and the stove, my clean hair caressing his nostrils. I remember that I never wanted that moment to end.

It didn’t. Twenty-two years later in San Francisco this brightly hued combination of tomato, capers and olives over swordfish is still the best loved dish in my repertoire by both my husband and my son.

During my young days, when a swordfish steak per guest was more than I could afford, I stretched it with cubing and found that I could keep it more moist if I cooked it partially and finished it in the hot sauce off the heat. It can, of course, be made with whole steaks but they should be no more than half and inch thick or they will not cook properly and become stringy. You can use other fish, like halibut, hake, bass, tilapia or even red mullet if you are lucky enough to find it. I always make some extra so I have leftovers to break up with a fork and use as a spaghetti sauce the following day.

Pescespada dell’amore
Swordfish of love

2 tablespoons capers packed in salt
3 tablespoons pitted black olives in brine (Gaeta or Kalamata)
1 pound skinless swordfish steak
salt as needed
pepper to taste
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove
1 handful basil leaves
14 ounces can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Optional: red chili flakes to taste

Put the capers in a tea strainer and run under hot water to melt away all the
visible salt. Rinse well and leave to soak in warm water while you are
reading the rest of the ingredients.

Wash the brine off the olives and pit them. Leave to soak in warm water until ready to use.

Cut the swordfish into 1-inch cubes. Season the cubes all over with a teaspoon of salt and a pinch of black pepper.

Gently press down on the garlic clove with the side of your knife’s blade to loosen the skin without smashing the garlic. Peel the garlic.

Stack the basil leaves and tightly roll them longitudinally. Slice them into thin ribbons. This technique will keep the basil from bruising and turning bitter.

Empty the can of tomatoes into a bowl. Fill the empty can with water and swirl it about to collect the tomato juice netting the sides of the can. Add it to the bowl. Crush the tomatoes with a potato masher or your hands until they are broken but still chunky.

Place 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the garlic clove in a 10 to 12” sauté pan and heat it over a medium-low flame. When you see some tiny bubbling around the garlic clove turn it to blister on the other side. When the oil is shimmery and its fragrance wafts up to your nose without you having to bend over the stove remove and discard the garlic.

Raise the heat to medium-high and add the swordfish cubes. Sear quickly on all sides, just until the fish changes color from powder pink to milky grey. Remove the swordfish with a slotted spoon letting the moisture fall back into the pan and transfer it to a plate.

Pour the rest of the olive oil into the same pan and heat it for about 30 seconds, scraping the bits left by the swordfish on the bottom. Add half the all recipe basil and the tomatoes, Season with 1 teaspoon of salt and cook at a lively simmer for 10 to 12 minutes, until they are no longer tangy.

Drain and squeeze the olives and capers and stir them into the tomatoes. Cook for another 5 to 8 minutes, until the sauce is bright in color and taste and somewhat loose in appearance.

Put the fish back in the hot sauce, sprinkle with the oregano, and stir. Taste the sauce and adjust salt and pepper to suit your taste. If you like a flash of heat, now is the time to add red chili flakes. Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid. Leave the swordfish in the hot sauce to finish cooking. This technique will keep the fish tender even if it stays on the stove for a while.

When ready to serve, pour everything into a warm serving platter and garnish with the remaining basil.

all recipes by Viola Buitoni

From “Italy by Ingredient: Artisanal Foods / Modern Recipes”
by Viola Buitoni (Rizzoli, September 2023)