Monkfish tasty but ugly, with serious teeth

May 17, 2006|By ROB KASPER

It may be the ugliest fish in the ocean, but, man, is it tasty. I am talking about monkfish, Lophius americanus, the bottom dweller that has an enormous head, serious teeth and a face only a mother monk- fish could love.

Sitting on the bottom of the ocean, the monkfish dangles its modified spine, or "esca" in front of its mouth to attract prey. When a passing fish takes this "bait," the monkfish, also known as the anglerfish, swallows the fish. Monkfish have been reported to eat prey half their size, according to a fact sheet produced by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and also have been known to venture up to the surface and chow down on water birds.

Fortunately for consumers, monkfish rarely show up at retail fish counters with their heads on and their teeth showing. If they did, they might scare small children and make squeamish shoppers change their supper plans from fish to pizza.

Instead monkfish "fillets," long, thick strips of white flesh, appear in retail shops. These fillets are actually from the tail of the fish, one of the most promising parts of the monkfish body. Once the thin gray membrane covering the fish is removed, the flesh looks like big pieces of white steak.

That is what they looked like at Gary Howard Seafood in Chincoteague, Va., where my wife and I recently spent a weekend. A sign in the shop promised that the monkfish on display had been recently caught in the nearby waters. The prospect of fresh fish at $5.95 a pound was too good to turn down.

For advice on how to cook the monkfish, I turned to cookbook author Mark Bittman. Usually, whenever I have a piece of fish but don't have a plan for how to handle it, I find a reliable answer in Fish, Bittman's 1994 cookbook.

In this instance I couldn't put my hands on my copy of Fish, so I turned to another Bittman cookbook, How to Cook Everything, a 1998 tome that has recently been released in paperback.

It offered a simple solution: Cover the monk- fish in flour and chopped herbs, brown it in a skillet, then add some stock to the pan and roast it in the oven. In addition to being easy, this method also produced a sauce for the fish.

The fillets were rolled in a mixture of flour and chopped fresh herbs -- rosemary, oregano, thyme and sage. Then they went into a hot skillet where they turned an appetizing shade of brown. Next a cup of chicken stock was poured in and the skillet full of fish was placed in a 450-degree oven.

It cooked for about 30 minutes. This seemed like a long time for fish to spend in a 450-degree oven. But monkfish is dense and requires a lot of heat to do the job.

When the fish was easily pierced with a wooden skewer, that meant it was done and it was pulled from the pan. The pan juices and the herbs were cooked down, then spooned over the fish.

The monkfish had pleasing, meatlike texture and mild flavor that went well with the sauce. The fish tasted so sophisticated, it was hard to remember that it came from a critter that was so ugly.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper.

Roasted Monkfish With Herbs

Serves 4

1 1/2 to 2 pounds monkfish fillets

1/2 cup to 1 cup chopped fresh herbs (parsley, basil, chervil, tarragon, rosemary, chives, oregano, sage or whatever you have on hand)

1 cup flour

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup chicken, fish or vegetable stock, plus more if needed

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Rinse and pat dry the fish; remove as much of thin gray membrane covering the fish as you can using a knife and your fingers. Mix together the herbs, flour, salt and pepper.

Heat a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat for 2 minutes; add the olive oil. When it is good and hot (a pinch of flour will sizzle), dredge the monkfish in the mixture of flour and herbs. Shake off the excess flour and brown the fish in the skillet for a few minutes on all sides. Add the stock to the pan and place it uncovered in the oven.

Roast until the monkfish is tender (pierced easily with a probe), 20 to 30 minutes (monkfish cooks slowly), turning it over twice.

Remove the fish to a warm platter. If the pan juices are a little thin, reduce a bit; if they are too thick, add a little more stock or water and cook over medium heat for a minute or two. Serve with the fish, over rice or with bread.

From "How to Cook Everything" by Mark Bittman

Per serving: 363 calories, 37 grams protein, 11 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 26 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 56 milligrams cholesterol, 130 milligrams sodium

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