East End fish markets offer some of the best-looking seafood in the world — fillets and whole fish laid out on ice for inspection in all their finny glory, with glistening scales, and moist shiny eyes. Although most stores sell monkfish, a delicious fish with firm white flesh and few bones, you rarely see a whole monkfish on offer. That’s because the monkfish is a creature so ugly, it looks better without a head.
According to Candice Manwaring at Southold Fish market, “The heads are huge, and the liver is attached, so the fishermen prefer to sell them without the head and that way they can sell the liver separately.” The livers of monkfish are enormous, averaging a pound or more, are considered a delicacy in Asian cuisine and bring a high price.
With slimy, mottled grey skin the monkfish (a k a dangler fish) has an appendage that serves as a fishing rod positioned just above its jaws complete with another appendage that serves as a lure to attract smaller fish into a gaping mouth full of jagged teeth. It is the stuff of nightmares until you consider that the flesh of a monkfish is sweet and delicious with a flavor that reminds some people of lobster.
To my mind it’s even better than lobster because it doesn’t get rubbery or tough, and there are no bones or shells to deal with. The fillets are from the tail of the creature, thankfully nowhere near the head.
Monkfish medallions in a bath of leeks
1 and ¾ pounds monkfish fillets
2 tablespoons butter
4 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved
Leaves from three sprigs of tarragon
¼ cup white wine
1 cup chicken stock
1. Remove the grey membrane from the monkfish fillets by pinching it with paper-towel covered fingers and pulling it off. Slice the long monkfish fillets horizontally into ½ inch thick medallions. Lightly salt the medallions on both sides and give them a grind of pepper.
2. Trim the root ends of the leeks and make a horizontal cut where the leaves turn from white to green. Discard the green tops. Split the white half down the middle and rinse out the dirt and grit. Cut horizontally into ¼ inch pieces.
3. Heat the butter in a large sauté pan until it foams, add the leeks and cook over medium heat until the leeks are soft. Add the tomatoes and tarragon, continue cooking until the tomatoes collapse, add the white wine and stock, and cook down by about half.
4. Lay the monkfish medallions flat on top of the leek and stock mixture, bring the heat up so the mixture simmers, cover, turn heat to low and heat for five minutes, until the monkfish is cooked through.
5. Serve in bowls or soup plates with some crusty bread, or cook a pound of linguini about a minute less that the package says, and add the drained pasta to the sauté pan to combine with the fish and leek mixture.
Monkfish roasted with cherry tomatoes and capers
2 monkfish fillets, each about ¾ of a pound, with membrane removed
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves crushed and coarsely chopped
3/4-cup breadcrumbs made from 2-3 slices of crusty bread, toasted and diced
¼ cup capers, drained and rinsed
12 oz cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
2. Split each monkfish fillet open by cutting a vertical line through the fat part of the fillet from one end to the other, without cutting through. Sprinkle the inside of the cut lightly with salt and drizzle with a 2 teaspoons of olive oil.
3. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in an iron skillet or oven-safe sauté pan, add the garlic, and cook for five minutes at low heat. Raise the heat to medium, add the capers, and cook briefly. Add the breadcrumbs and stir to coat with the oil/garlic/caper mixture. Remove from heat and set aside the stuffing mixture.
4. Clean the skillet with a paper towel and add a little olive oil to coat the bottom.
5. Stuff the fillets with the breadcrumb mixture. Lay each opened fillet flat on top of two or three pieces of butchers twine or cotton string, divide the stuffing evenly between the fillets. Bring the ends of the string together to tie the fish loosely around the stuffing. Arrange the fillets in the skillet, scattering any stuffing that falls out around the fillets.
6. Place the cherry tomatoes on top of and around the fillets cut side up. Add another light grind of pepper, a little salt and drizzle with the remaining olive oil.
7. Roast at 425 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes until the flesh is tender to the fork.