I first gazed on his ugly mug in French-influenced Morocco, more precisely at the fish market in Rabat. And like Beauty with the Beast, I fell in love.
Sea devil. Crapaud. Baudroie. Lotte. Goosefish. Anglerfish. Poor Man’s Lobster. …
It seems his name is Legion (Nomen mihi Legio est, quia multi sumus) … .
Monkfish (Lophius piscatorius).
Two-thirds of the body is just skull. Tiny triangular-shaped teeth line the rounded jaws that some call “Jaws of Hell,” looking for all the world like miniature roadblocks. No fish, once inside that cavernous mouth, could flee, swimming frantically back out against those backward-pointing daggers. For the monkfish, all of life centers around this gaping mouth, working like a vacuum cleaner, sucking in small fish and bathers’ feet and even the occasional goose. Moving through the shallows, burrowing down with its flat body and baseball bat-sized tail into an underworld of muddy sand and eelgrass, luring small fish with its angling equipment attached to its head — centered between the tiny marble-sized eyes, the monkfish itself often ends up ambushed.
Modern fishermen, thrilled with the apparent size of the prey they’re reeling in, pull back in disgust when they see the wraith they’re pulling into the boat. As they grab at the slobber-slimy and scale-less skin, hanging as flaccid and loose as a bulldog’s, the fishermen can’t wait to throw the gnashing, thrashing monkfish back into the ocean. This mottled-brown bottom dweller of the shoals puts up a good fight. Often considered to be “trash fish,” the truth is, in spite of its looks, monkfish fed many a poor fisherman’s family in years past.
Today, a cook’s first glimpse of the monkfish, also called Stargazer, usually comes when the monster, tamed, lies headless on a bed of ice, each perfect crystal shimmering in the light. Then the fishmonger, gloved and indifferent, grasps the precious tail and pulls the skin off just as easily as Rita Hayworth peeled off her silk stockings. There lies “poor man’s lobster,” a true delicacy.
Pretty him up with caper, béarnaise, or tomato sauce.
Baudroie à la Provençale
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup finely minced red onion
1 T. garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 1/2 lbs. peeled tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1/4 t. crushed fennel seeds
1 t. sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 pounds of monkfish, skinned, washed, and cut into slices
Flour for dredging
3 T. fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish
Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the onion in 3 T. of the oil until translucent. Add the garlic, tomatoes, and fennel; cook until tomatoes reduce slightly and form a sauce. Set aside.
In another skillet, heat the remaining oil over medium-high heat. Sprinkle the monkfish slices with salt and pepper. Dredge the slices in the flour and fry in the oil until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.
Return the tomato sauce to the burner over medium heat; add the monkfish slices and let simmer about 10 minutes.
Serve with tomato sauce spread around the fish slices, topped with the parsley.
© 2011 C. Bertelsen