Earlier in my life, when I had a swollen ego, the thought of paying good money for a piece of fish at the fish market made my skin crawl. Now, older, wiser, and with more money in my pocket, I cherish a visit with the fishmonger during the long, chilly winter offseason.
Recently, after polishing off the last bag of vacuum-sealed swordfish in my chest freezer, I got a craving for some fresh fillets. Off to the fish market I went. When I buy fish, I usually opt for something exotic that I can’t catch myself in our local waters. Wild salmon, arctic char, and Gulf-caught shrimp are usually my go-to choices. On this occasion, my eyes were drawn to the price tag on the local catch of the day: monkfish. It was one of the cheapest offerings in the case, and it also appeared to be the freshest.
While monkfish can indeed be captured locally, they are perhaps one of the rarest bycatches I can think of. In all the years I’ve been fishing, I can count on one hand the number of monkfish I’ve seen come over the rail. However, while they are an unusual bycatch for recreational fishermen, according to marine biologists, stocks are stable enough that commercial quotas have increased in recent years.
As the stock of more desirable fish like cod, flounder, and halibut continue to plummet, monkfish is a sustainable choice as a local seafood option. Despite its nightmarish appearance, its tail meat is quite exquisite; it has a firm, meaty texture that will slighty remind you of lobster. Sometimes referred to as “poor man’s lobster,” it can better withstand being marinated compared to most other, more delicate fish. It can also withstand preparations that most white fillets can’t, such as grilled kebabs.
FUN FISH FACT: Monkfish have been known to eat seagulls.
I recently had an enlightening conversation with Tim Linnell, one of a handful of commercial fishermen who specifically target monkfish in the Northeast. Most of the season, he fishes for skate and dogfish off Chatham, Massachusetts, but from March through May, he switches gears and gillnets for monkfish. According to Tim, during the summer months, these fish can be found at just about any depth, on any kind of bottom, in every sea across the globe. (By the way, I know a guy who once caught a large one in 3 feet of water on the banks of the Cape Cod Canal.) Since they are widespread and don’t tend to congregate in any specific area, they are tough to target. As a result, commercial catches consist almost entirely of bycatch, mainly by scallop dredgers. However, in the winter, monkfish make a sizeable migration out to the canyons, Tim believes they spawn in water around 200 fathoms deep. In early spring, the fish head back inshore, where he intercepts them in water around 900 feet deep in the beginning of the season, and 400 feet deep toward the end.
These fish appear better equipped for walking with their pectoral fins than they are for swimming, so it is quite remarkable that they are capable of making such a long migration. One tagging study recorded a monkfish migrating over 500 miles.
Tim also informed me that monkfish livers were a valuable commodity 20 years ago. They were trendy in upscale restaurants, and there was great demand for them in Europe and Japan. At the time, he could fetch upward of $20 per pound. Nowadays, however, liver prices have plummeted to $2 per pound. The price for a whole monkfish has also declined as US consumers continue their desire for overfished species like cod and halibut, most of which is now imported from Canada and northern Europe. Sadly, consumer demand for monkfish remains low, so if you are looking to buy fresh, locally caught seafood this winter, try it. It’s a sustainable option, it tastes great, and the price is right.
Foie Gras of the Sea
If you are like me, you’re probably wondering why monkfish livers are more sought after than those of other fish. The answer? All fish have livers, but few have anywhere near the level of fat that monkfish livers contain. Bluefin tuna livers, for instance, contain only about 10% fat. Monkfish livers, for whatever reason, clock in at over 40%. For comparison, Foie gras (goose liver) is around 46% fat. Only a few other species of fish share this trait. In Japan, where fatty fish liver is all the rage, those from leatherfish, filefish, and green ling are also considered delicacies.
Preparing Monkfish Livers
Peel off the membrane surrounding the liver and do your best to remove the vein that runs along one side. Inspect for any visible parasites, and remove them, if needed. (Yes, I know this sounds terrifying.)
The liver can be prepared a number of ways. Perhaps the two most well-known methods are the French Torchon and Japanese Ankimo, both of which use basically the same technique borrowed from classic foie gras preparations.
The liver is first seasoned with salt and spices, marinated, and then rolled into a tight log with a towel or plastic wrap. It is then refrigerated overnight, rinsed, and either steamed or sous vide until just cooked through. To serve, it is sliced into rounds and served with a sauce. The high fat content results in a rich, creamy texture.
I asked Tim about his favorite way to cook monkfish. His response: “Well, it really holds together well in a chowder or stew, but if you really want to eat something good, cut the tail into medallions … and wrap them in bacon.”
For our first recipe this month, I took Tim’s advice. I had just cooked up 3 pounds of homemade, pecan-smoked honey bacon. It was loudly calling my name, and there I was with a gorgeous monkfish tail. I got to work, and this is what I came up with.
Monkfish Wrapped in Bacon
- 1 Monkfish tail fillet (about 1.5 pounds)
- 6 pieces bacon
- Juice from 1/2 lemon
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
- 1 to 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- Salt & pepper
Cut the monkfish tail in half lengthwise and plop it in a shallow pan. Sprinkle on the lemon juice and honey, then roll the pieces around until well coated. Give them a dusting of salt, pepper, paprika, and half of the parsley. Marinate them in the refrigerator for 1/2 hour.
Arrange the two sections of monkfish tail with the thin end of one snuggled up to the thick end of the other, so you have a roll of even thickness. Wrap slices of bacon around the tail, leaving about 1/2 inch between slices, and secure with toothpicks. (Leaving some space between the bacon slices will make it much easier to slice into medallions after cooking.)
Get a heavy cast-iron skillet nice and hot. (I like to preheat it on medium for 8 to 10 minutes until the handle is hot to the touch.) Add the bacon-wrapped tail to the pan and cook, turning often, until the bacon is cooked, but not crispy. Next, check the temperature in the middle of the fish; we are aiming for an internal temperature of 150 degrees. If it’s not quite there, reduce heat to low and continue cooking until it reaches the magic number.
Remove from pan and let it rest for a few minutes. Cut into medallions between the bacon slices, and serve atop some mashed potatoes, or even better, on risotto and a vegetable of your choice. Spoon a bit of the liquid that’s left over in the pan on top, and garnish with remaining parsley.
It was stupendous. So good that I went back the fish market the following day, bought some more monkfish, and made it again the following night.
Our next dish is a regional speciality from Brittany, where it is often served on special occasions. Monkfish, or la lotte in French, is one of the most popular fish in France.
The dish dates back to the 19th century and is credited to chef Pierre Fraisse, who returned to Paris after cooking in America for several years. As the story goes, he had just opened his restaurant, Peter’s, and a group of famous customers entered, requesting a dish made with lobster. All he had on hand were some monkfish tails that were slated for the following night’s menu, so he freestyled this dish and told them it was lobster made with an American sauce.
French American Monkfish Stew (Lotte à l’Armoricaine)
- 2 pounds monkfish tail fillets
- 1/3 cup flour
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons cognac or brandy
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 15oz. can tomato sauce
- 2 tablespoons tomato purée
- 7 oz. dry white wine
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 branch fresh thyme
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
Cut the monkfish tail fillets into medallions, dust them with salt, and then roll them in flour on a plate. Heat the butter and olive oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven on medium-low heat. Once it starts to bubble, add the fish. Lightly brown on all sides, increase the heat, and add the Cognac. Take the pan off heat and flambé off the alcohol, scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.
Remove the fish and set aside.
Sauté the onion and garlic until translucent, then add the tomato sauce, tomato purée, wine, red pepper flakes, bay leaf, thyme, and any juices from the fish. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Return the fish to the pot, cover, and cook on low for another 8 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve atop a bed of rice or on a toasted slice of fresh bread with a vegetable of your choice.
Grilled Greek Monkfish Kebobs
- 1 pound monkfish tail
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
- 2 teaspoons honey (or sugar)
- Lemon wedges (for garnish)
- Salt and pepper to taste
Cut the monkfish tail into medallions, then season with salt and pepper. Whisk together the next seven ingredients, then pour it over the fish. Mix well and refrigerate for an hour.
Skewer the medallions, reserving any leftover marinade. Grill over high heat for about 2 to 3 minutes, flip, and brush on some additional marinade. Grill until they reach 150 degrees in the thickest part. (They can also be broiled if winter grilling isn’t your thing.)
Serve with other assorted vegetables of your choice, which should also be marinaded, skewered and put on kebob sticks; however, resist the urge to mix the veggies on the skewers with the fish. They take longer to cook, resulting in either overcooked fish, or undercooked vegetables.
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