Every so often you hear something that catches your attention and immediately begs the question, “Really?!?” Such was case this past week as I was walking through the kitchen at Söntés. Chef Bryce was preparing to put monkfish on the menu when someone made an offhand comment: “You know monkfish is known as the ‘poor man’s lobster?'” Now, I thought that everyone in the kitchen had already heard this, but it turns out one person had not. Then, of course, Trevor, our knowledgeable resident food nerd, one-upped all of us. (Actually, who I am kidding? We’re all food nerds, and we constantly try to one-up each other.) Trevor said, “Actually, lobster was originally a poor person’s food, and it was not until late in the mid-1800’s that it began to be favored by the wealthy people.”
I paused and replied, “Are you kidding?”
“Nope. We had a history teacher in high school who thought that fact was hilarious, and she kept talking about it. Plus, I think I saw something about it on the History Channel.” (Okay, maybe he is bit more nerdy then the rest of us.) “Really. Go check it out.”
So needless to say, I did. Sure enough, lobster was the meal of choice for poor European settlers on the shores of this continent. Lobsters were known to wash up to two feet high on shore and could be up to 40 pounds! Can you imagine?
Which leads back to our poor man’s lobster, the monkfish. Ironically, monkfish is now catching on in the culinary world and can be just as expensive, if not more so, than lobster! Experts like to say the tail meat of monkfish is very similar in taste and texture to lobster, and I do agree. I think it tends be a bit sweeter and not as rubbery too (a bonus!). What they fail to mention is that this fish is all tail. Yep you read that right. The fish—and boy it is it ugly—is ALL tail.
One other fun fact: the monkfish has seven skins! I would highly recommend having your fishmonger skin this monstrosity before you take it home. Or, if you really want to make it easy, just come in and order it off our menu this week.
We’re featuring a Pan-Roasted Monkfish Cioppino served with tomato espuma, glazed vegetables, and bruschetta. Our cioppino is a bit different than the traditional dish, as it’s actually a deconstructed cioppino. “Why?” you may ask. “Because we can!” says Trevor. But really, ours is considered deconstructed because all of the parts (tomatoes, veggies, seafood, and cioppino base) are made separately, then stacked one on the other.
If you want to try your hand at cooking monkfish at home, I recommend butter poaching it. I love butter poaching: it’s simple, it’s easy, and it’s delicious. Some might think it a bit over the top, but hey, ’tis the season! Plus, butter poaching is a really easy way of preparing just about any fish, especially if you want to impart great flavor and moisture.
Butter Poaching a Monkfish:
In a shallow pot, combine equal parts unsalted butter and water with some added salt. As far as salt goes, the world is your oyster! Experiment a bit. You could try sea salt, kosher, pink Himalayan, Hawaiian black lava, or one of the many others. (If you want to, you can add some herbs or spices, but that’s not strictly necessary.)
Put the monkfish (or lobster or shrimp or halibut) in the butter & water bath, turn the heat to low, and cover the pot. Bring up to a simmer as slowly as possible, then turn the heat off right before it comes to a boil. Make sure the fish is submerged all the way under the poaching liquid. Take care not to boil the butter, as it will give your fish a rubbery texture.
Now, for how long to cook it. I do it by sight: just cook it until it’s done. Easy for me to say, right? Don’t worry, a long slow poach is pretty forgiving. The flesh will get firmer as it simmers, and you just need to stop before it gets rubbery. Just don’t boil it, and you’ll be fine.
The best part about this process is that you can save the poaching liquid and use it again. Whether you’ll want to poach something else or add another flavor component when you’re sauteeing or making sauces, poaching liquid is a good thing to have handy around the kitchen.