"There is no doubt Italians live for food. They think and talk about it constantly and they spend a lot of money on it."
Antonio Carluccio (1986)
Red mullet, for me, is one of the fish that makes December a favourite seafoodie month of the year. I've been busting to make this dish ever since I heard about it back in the spring when I was serving on the market stall during the first lockdown, and I've now made it several times. The recipe was brought to my attention by a lady called Isabella who at the time was helping out on the neighbouring veg and fruit stall. It comes from the book, "An Invitation to Italian Cooking" by the late, great Antonio Carluccio and curiously, though importantly, only appears in the first edition, published in 1986. I found this out the hard way by first buying a later "fully revised and updated" edition, which does have more pictures but does not have this recipe. Thankfully I was since able to buy the original edition from a used-book seller.
In Carluccio's recipe introduction I think I am right in understanding that the heart of this dish lies in the classic Italian Triglie alla Livornese (red mullet Livorno style), and that this is Chef's variation, which he calls Triglie al Vino Rosso (and translates as this post title) among the many variations that he authoritatively explains are out there. I have adjusted the preparation slightly so I guess you could call this my variation on Carluccio's variation among the various variations.
The large quantity of bones in a red mullet may not be to everyone's liking but for those who enjoy red mullet it is certainly a dish for they. Made with smaller red mullet I would definitely choose this dish as fish course in a 4 or 5 course meal - the very simple, convenient cooking makes it very amenable to that! However served, and it probably goes without saying that Chef is right, some fresh bread to polish off the sauce is to be recommended.
As I mentioned in Deccan Fish Curry I do have a preference for smaller red mullet, opting for larger fish in curries or flavourful stews. Carluccio suggests a single red mullet of up to 250g per person as a main course but I would always try to go for two 125g per person if served as a main. However, as mentioned above, such do I think this is an ideal fish course, I would suggest a 125g fish person would be quite adequate if to be offered that way. I've written the recipe to serve two as a main but which could therefore serve four as a fish course. To serve four as a main you can simply double the quantities of the the sauce ingredients.
The main alteration I've made in my approach versus that of Carluccio's is to pound the sauce ingredients together using a pestle and mortar, rather than blitz them in an electric blender. Much like sauces such as tapenade and pesto there is a greater degree of control over the texture that I feel pays dividends in the final result. Plus there's something very therapeutic and satisfying about watching a sauce come together in the mortar as reward for the physical effort. Note that the sauce can be made ahead of time and the cooking is only 15 minutes, which is why this is such a suitable dish for a multi-course meal. If cooking in one session you may as well have the oven heating while making the sauce.
Red Mullet with Red Wine
Ingredients (Serves 2 as a main or 4 as a fish course)
4 x 125g red mullet, cleaned and trimmed
¼ tsp fennel seeds
1 garlic clove, coarsely chopped
2 anchovy fillets, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley, plus extra to garnish
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
60ml red wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
To make the sauce, put the fennel seeds in a mortar and pound lightly with the pestle. Add the chopped garlic, pound this somewhat and then add the chopped anchovy capers and parsley. Continue to pound into a coarse paste then, still using the pestle, stir in the olive oil and once all combined well, pour in the red wine and mix the completed sauce together with a spoon. Season to taste with salt (note the anchovies can be quite salty) and freshly ground black pepper.
Heat the oven to 200°C and put in an oven dish, which will fit the fish in snugly, to warm up.
Pour a little of the sauce into the base of the oven dish, pack the red mullet into the dish and pour over the remaining sauce. Bake in the oven for 15 mins.
Spoon out the fish into serving dishes (wide, shallow soup bowls are ideal), check the sauce for seasoning and then pour it over the fish. Garnish with the extra chopped parsley and serve straight away with fresh bread.
"An Invitation to Italian Cooking", First Edition, Antonio Carluccio (1986), pp 107: https://antoniocarlucciofoundation.org/book/an-invitation-to-italian-cooking/
"Deccan Fish Curry", Bute Street Seafoodie