Determined that you should never judge a book by its cover, Ed Smith explores the hidden charms of some of the Market’s less obviously alluring ingredients. This time, monkfish
It was only ever a matter of time before monkfish featured in this series about ugly ingredients. The gawping head of a monkfish is a well-established shock and awe tactic of fishmongers the world over—and one that the Market’s fish stalls employ to great effect.
This pre-historic looking, bottom-feeding fish is the stuff of nightmares. Its wide red mouth, razor-sharp jagged teeth and slimy grey skin are off-putting, to put it mildly; you certainly wouldn’t want to meet one in a dark puddle, let alone sit opposite it on blind date night. Things aren’t much better when the fish is cut into useful parts.
That massive head (about half or even two thirds of its total mass) yields just a couple of small cheeks. And as with all side-of-face treats, while they’re worth getting hold of, they won’t sustain many eaters.
Tail of the beast
Most of the flesh, and much of what you’ll see on the slab, is the tail of the beast. Which, even when distanced from that head, remains relatively repellent. The pearly white, wet flesh is an unhelpfully good catcher of neon light—suggestive of a flabby eating experience. You’ll notice towards the end of the tail that there’s still a hint of the grey skin and a clear membrane, clinging like ectoplasm. If you’re lucky, the remains of a few red organs punctuate the thicker part.
Basically, I think we can all agree that there are more seductive ingredients out there. Not to mention the question oft-overheard at the counter: “How would I go about cooking it anyway?!”
Which is of course where the tone of this piece changes. Because this is one of the most hassle-free and rewarding sea creatures you can cook and eat. That slimy grey membrane is easy to remove, the flesh virtually bone-free (totally, if you’ve had it filleted), and the aesthetics are forgotten by the time you’re eating.
A seafood doubter
Monkfish tail is meaty, juicy, and as receptive to heavy spicing as it is confident and flavourful enough to star on its own. I’d wager that no monkfish meal in living memory has finished without a seafood doubter saying, “Gosh, it’s really not that fishy at all, is it?”
We’re generally advised to cook monkfish tail in one of two ways: roasted as a whole tail or fillet, perhaps wrapped in pancetta, or else cut into large chunks and added to a curry, fishy broth or other liquid-based meal. This is perhaps because the flesh is fairly forgiving and can take being cooked for a longer time than most fish.
However, I personally believe there’s a tendency to overcook things, and instead prefer to pan fry my monkfish for only a short time, constantly basting the fillet with browning, foaming butter until just cooked through.
My black butter spiced monkfish tail recipe goes through that cooking process in a little more detail. The resulting tail meat is juicy, giving—and much, much better to eat than it was to look at.