Anna Cornino Santoro's memorable couscous with scorpion fish brodetto inspired me to create this version when I got home. I use grouper, a delicious fish, widely available and easy to work with (and certainly fewer bones than scorpion fish!).Making couscous by hand, as Anna does, is not feasible for most of us, I realize. Fortunately, good quality packaged couscous is in every supermarket these days. Almost all commercial couscous is precooked so it takes barely 5 minutes to make a flavorful, fluffy base for the brodetto.
For the brodetto
2 pounds skinless grouper fillet
1 teaspoon Coarse sea salt, or kosher salt or to taste
flour for dredging, (1/2 cup or so)
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
1 tablespoon garlic, chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped (2 cups)
½ teaspoon peperoncino, or to taste
¼ teaspoon cinnamon, or to taste
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups canned Italian plum tomatoes, preferable San Marzano, crushed by hand
2 cups hot water, or as needed
For the couscous
3 cups water
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Coarse sea salt, or kosher salt
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
2½ cups quick-cooking couscous
Recommended Equipment: A heavy bottomed saucepan or saute pan with high sides, 13 inches or wider, with a cover. A heavy 3-quart saucepan with a cover, for the couscous.
Slice the grouper fillet into chunks, 3- to 4-inches wide and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt.
Pour the olive oil into the big saucepan and set it over medium heat. Dredge the fish pieces in flour, shake off any excess and lay them in the hot oil. Cook for about 2 minutes until crisp and opaque on the underside; turn the pieces and brown them for another minute or two on the other side. Remove to a platter.
Drop the chopped garlic into the pan, stir until sizzling, then add the onions and stir well, scraping up any caramelized bits on the bottom. Sprinkle in the peperoncino, the cinnamon, another 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring, as the onions wilt and lightly color. Push the onions aside to clear a small space in the pan bottom. Drop in the tomato paste, stir it in the clear, hot spot for a minute to toast, then incorporate into the onions.
Pour in the crushed tomatoes and 2 cups of hot water (use some of the water to rinse the tomato container), raise the heat, stir well and bring the liquids to a boil. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt and adjust the heat to keep the brodetto bubbling gently.
After 10 minutes, nestle the grouper chunks into the simmering brodetto and pour in any fish juices accumulated in the platter. The chunks should be nearly covered by the sauce; add more hot water if necessary. Heat rapidly until the sauce is bubbling again then simmer gently, partially covered. Shake the pan occasionally to distribute the brodetto and slosh it over the fish.
When the grouper is tender and flakes easily, about 10 to 15 minutes, turn off the heat. Drizzle a tablespoon or two of olive oil all over the top.
Meanwhile, prepare the couscous: Put the 3 cups water, olive oil, salt and bay leaves in the smaller saucepan, cover, and bring to a rolling boil. Pour in the couscous and stir until the water begins to boil again, then turn off the heat and cover the pan tightly. Let the couscous sit to soften and completely absorb the water, about 10 minutes. Fluff it with a fork, breaking up any lumps, and remove the bay leaves.
To serve, do as Anna does: heap the couscous in a warm deep serving platter bowl. Lay the chunks of grouper on top, spoon half of the brodetto over the fish and couscous and pour the rest into a bowl for passing at the table. Serve immediately.