Just about the ugliest fish in the world is also one of the tastiest and has suddenly become very fashionable. Its monkfish.
Jamie Oliver has an excellent Sri Lankan-style monkfish curry in his recent Globe and Mail column. I tried it out and it’s excellent. I gave a very small sample to my friendly young neighbours, who had dropped by for a drink the other night, and said they would have made monkfish that very night, but the fishmonger was out of stock. Later I received a scatological text from John, some words of which were to the effect that it was delicious. John co-owns several eateries and should know what he’s talking about, and is just about to open three more, busy lad, but more of that another day. His partner Petrina said it was the best monkfish she’d ever tasted, until I reminded her it was the ONLY monkfish she’d ever tasted. She replied that I’d set the bar high, but Jamie should take the credit for that meal.
Personally, I thought it was too spicy and the heat hides what I had been told was a delicious flavour akin to lobster. What I did like was his marinade which consisted of the juice of a couple of limes and a dusting of turmeric.
Since I am now allergic to lobster (and many other shellfish) finding a replacement which won’t make me ill, would be a true wonder. This tasty sample came from the brilliant new(ish) Loblaws on Church Street in Toronto, carved out of the old Maple Leaf Gardens. I shop there a lot because it has free indoor parking (a blessing in this interminable winter) and the staff are universally helpful and friendly. The fishmonger won’t sell me the filets on display, but offers to cut me new filets from a fish on ice. It’s much fresher, he explains as I snap a shot of the beast with my Blackberry Priv. He tells me they arrive beheaded, thank goodness, or he’d never sell one.
Flying across the Atlantic a few days later, I’m watching Bradley Cooper’s foodie film Burnt. In one scene he’s visiting a member of his culinary team in prison, apparently for assault. ‘Why did you do it,’ he asks his pal, Max, played by Riccardo Scamarcio. ‘He plated the monkfish upside down,’ replies Max, ‘Three times. Upside-fucking-down, man.’ I laugh so hard I almost spit out my Scotch. I also started worrying about how I could tell which way was up when I came to cook the fish again.
Researching monkfish, which by the way, is a member of the angler fish family, lurks on the bottom of the sandy sea with its huge and toothy mouth open, waiting for an unwary prey to swim by, I discovered that in some areas monkfish is considered an endangered species. In February 2007, the British supermarket chain Asda banned monkfish from their stores. However, I am assured that on the North American side of the pond, stocks are in good shape. If you’re tempted, please don’t check out what it looks like online or you’ll never give it a try.
Monkfish is commonly used in French cuisine, and was quite fashionable a couple of dozen years ago, but it has only recently become popular in North America. That culinary encyclopedia of all things French (Larousse Gastronomique, first published in English in 2001) has eight recipes for monkfish and I’m sure I’ll try some of them when I get a taste for this fish. First step is preparation, and some of that work is best done behind the scenes. Larousse has recipies for escalopes, fillets and medallions of monkfish, chunks grilled, roasted and barbecued, but none catch my eye.
The highlight of any visit to Derbyshire is a visit to our friend Tessa Bramley, executive chef and owner of Sheffield’s outstanding and award winning The Old Vicarage restaurant. Lunch is offered, although we’d only dropped by to say hello, and gladly accepted. It turns out to be the best meal I’ve ever had. Truly. And another day I’ll write about all of it when my taste buds have stopped resonating. Interestingly, considering my quest, Tessa has monkfish on the menu as a starter and it is delicious. After lunch, I drop in on chef Nathan in the kitchen and he tells me he doesn’t marinate the fish, just pan browns it in butter and then roasts it quickly in a very hot oven. They’ve served monkfish in many forms over the years,Tessa tells me, and this iteration comes with tendrils of tender samphire (seaweed) on a bed of pearl barley and hazlenuts. The dish is worth two Michelin stars, at least. Are you listening, Guide Michelin editors?
The Chatsworth Estate Farm Shop in Derbyshire, where I always make a pilgrimage to stock up on foods not readily available in Toronto, has an excellent fishmonger. I ask the young man filleting a fish why the monkfish I see on the ice has recently become fashionable. He doesn’t know the answer, but goes off to check with an older colleague and reports back that the reason is “celebrity chefs.” At Chatsworth, the fish is labelled ‘monk tail,’ but I am assured it’s the same thing.
Nigel Slater, is my go-to British ‘cook who writes’ when I’m stuck for ideas. He has a recipe for a ‘deceptively brilliant monkfish,’ in his Kitchen Diaries, which is the one I’m offering here.
Get the fishmonger to fillet the tail, the only part that is edible. Once the fish has been filleted and the central bone removed, there are no others. Any gray or tan membranes should be removed before cooking. They are edible but not pretty after cooking. The remaining flesh is bright white, lean and mild-tasting. The fish can be prepared using almost any cooking method, and it can be served in soups and stews. Its lean flesh tends to dry out if overcooked, so it’s a good idea to marinate it before cooking.
After Nigel Slater
- 3 bushy sprigs rosemary, leaves finely chopped
- 4 anchovy fillets
- 2 large cloves garlic
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 large lemon, juice only
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 800g/1½lb monkfish fillet
- Strip the leaves from the rosemary stalks and chop them finely, then tip them into a bowl large enough to take the fish. Rinse the anchovy fillets and smash them to a rough pulp. Peel the garlic, crush it flat, then smash it to a purée in the same way. Stir together the herb, anchovy and garlic, adding a grinding of black pepper and a little salt, remembering the anchovies are quite salty. Halve the lemon, squeeze it into the other ingredients and slowly blend in the olive oil so that it becomes a green and fragrant paste.
- Slice the fish into two long, thick strips, then cut each one into four roughly equal pieces so each person will get two.
- Marinade the fish pieces in the sauce, making sure they are thoroughly coated. Cover the bowl and leave it in the fridge for a minimum of an hour, maximum of three.
- Get the grill pan or the BBQ hot. Lift the pieces of monkfish from their marinade and set them in the lightly oiled pan or directly on the grill. They will take a good five minutes on each side, depending on the heat, and it is worth checking that they are cooked right through.
- Once cooked, season with more salt and a good squeeze of lemon at the table.
- Serve with rice.
NEWS UPDATE: My fully illustrated e-book, Market to Table: The Cookbook started as a project for novice cooks, but after I was picked to host a cooking show featuring food bought at farmers’ markets, developed into a more complete collection of the recipes from the series, including some from guest chefs on the show, as well as those from my well-read foodie blog. It is easy to read, divided into chapters that cover the main mealtimes of the day, and into recipes that are concise and guaranteed to work. Most recipes are accompanied by an entertaining story. Brilliant young Chef Dan Frenette, who now hosts the TV series, has written the Foreword and contributes to the book.
Categories: Market to Table