Monkfish, with its long tail, massive head, and large gaping mouth, is among the ugliest of sea creatures. It was essentially unknown in this country until Julia Child, familiar with it from her time in France, featured a whole monkfish on one of her more memorable and hilarious shows.
Known as lotte in France, its sweet meat is prized, although French fishmongers joke that they never show the head because it would send their customers running in terror.
I can attest to this because once, fishing in our boat a couple of miles out from Portsmouth, N.H., with our sons, Kevin and Michael, their friend Brian landed a monkfish. None of us had ever seen this evil-looking monster with such huge teeth, and the boys quickly cut the line and flipped him over the side!
Monkfish has several advantages to the cook: It is relatively inexpensive, boneless, and adaptable to varied preparations. Its firm white flesh has a mild flavor that some feel is similar to lobster, and its density makes cooking time less critical than those of other fillets.
Monkfish fillets are half of a tail and can vary significantly in size, but most are about the size of a pork tenderloin. This comparison is apt because monkfish is cooked more like meat than fish.
This preparation uses ground dried porcini mushrooms as a coating. I find the dense, earthy flavor of the mushrooms complements the meaty texture of the fillet, but I’ve also used fresh rosemary and garlic or crushed black pepper, fennel seeds, and coriander seeds. Simple sea salt and ground pepper are fine, as well.
This technique, searing over high heat on the stove top and finishing in the oven, is frequently used in restaurants. The searing caramelizes the crust, and the cooking then continues relatively untended in the oven, permitting final preparation of the rest of the meal.
We will have similar recipes using chicken and meat in the future because rich flavors develop while moist tenderness is preserved.
Makes 4 servings
Preheat oven: 500 degrees F
- 2-pound monkfish fillet or 2 smaller totaling 2 to 2 1/2 pounds (ask fishmonger to remove covering membrane)
- 1/4 cup dried porcini mushrooms, or 1 small package as sold in markets (double if using 2 fillets)
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Olive oil
Grind mushrooms to a powder in a spice mill, coffee grinder, or blender. Salt and pepper all surfaces of the fillet; then roll fillet in mushroom powder, covering evenly.
Heat an ovenproof heavy sauté of frying pan over medium high heat (a cast iron pan works well). Film bottom of pan with olive oil and add fillet when oil is shimmering.
Sauté until well browned on all sides; if cooking two fillets, keep them apart to promote browning. Place pan into oven and cook for approximately 20 minutes per inch at thickest part of fillet or until temperature is 155 F.
Note that monkfish requires longer cooking than most other fish because of its density, so check temperature since cooking times will vary depending on the oven and the size of the fish.
Remove pan from oven. (The handle will stay very hot; it is a good idea to place an oven mitt over the handle. I have grabbed hold of a few!)
Let fish stand for 5 minutes or so to permit the temperature to reach 160 degrees, which is important for tenderness.
Drizzle with a small amount of your best extra virgin olive oil and serve with roasted potatoes or a potato pancake, along with a green vegetable such as sautéed spinach.
This is one fish dish that should be served with a red wine, such a Spanish Rioja, or a California Cabernet.
Charles Burke is a freelance writer, organic farmer, and cook living in the New England area. For more recipes visit: www.TheHeartofNewEngland.com
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