Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Monkfish Osso Buco

"What can I get for you, Helen?" asked Carl.

"I think I'll get monkfish," I said. I am not sure if it was my desire to try something new or my recent craving for anything that works with mashed potatoes.

"How are you cooking it?" he asked.

"I'll keep it on the bone and try a braising method with an osso buco type sauce," I told Carl. You see, monkfish is not on my regular list of fish. I don't care for that "pooh man's lobster" texture that people rave about. If I want lobster, I'll buy one. In my experience, all the traditional ways of cooking fish (pan searing, broiling, grilling, roasting, poaching, and steaming) results in a monkfish that's rubbery. But I had reasons to believe that there is hope. I had a fabulous dish of a whole braised monkfish tail in a restaurant once, and that's what I was thinking of recreating.

Carl surveyed the scene of whole monkfish tails and shook his head.

"These are no good," he said. "They'd be fine to fillet, but for a good on the bone braise... I know what you need."

He disappeared to the back room and came back a minute later with a whole monster of a fish. I've seen a whole monkfish before, but every time I come face to face with this creature, I shudder. Its mouth is bigger than its body and packed with sharp teeth. Its eyes always seem to be looking at me and saying "If only I was still alive, I'd make a nice meal out of you!"

Carl plopped the helpless beast on the counter and told his helper Isaiah to cut me a piece that is closest to the head. I've never seen this part of monk sold in stores. I thought I was lucky when I saw the original monk tails still attached to the bone. I don't understand why most stores fillet them. The monk tastes so much juicier when it's still on the bone and once it's cooking, filleting it is a breeze -- the one thick bone pops right now. But this gorgeous piece that Isaiah cut for me truly looked like a veal shank.

I brought it home and cooked it exactly like I cook osso buco with veal shanks, but reducing the cooking time from several hours to just 30 minutes. The results were amazing. It was the most delicate and moist monkfish we've ever had.

"Was it this good in the restaurant?" asked Jason.

"If they bought their monk from the New Deal, it would have been," I said.

Monkfish Osso Buco

Buying monkfish: To do this dish justice, you need bone-in monkfish. Unlike other fish, the only part of monk that is edible is its tail. If you are lucky enough to have your fishmonger cut a whole fish to order for you, ask him for the thickest part of the tail (closest to the head) and instruct him to cut it into 1.5 inch steaks. If you ended up with a thin part of the tail, just leave it whole.

Removing the membrane: Even if your fishmonger removes the skin off the monk, you still need to remove the membrane that covers the flesh of the monk. It looks like a translucent sack and usually has tiny black dots. Remove it with a boning knife like you would remove the silver skin off meat. You have to be thorough and remove absolutely all of it as it gets chewy when cooked.

Trussing the steaks: If you got nice thick steaks, you should truss them with kitchen twine (that's fancy word for tie it up). Depending on its thickness, you might need one or two strings. Remove the string before serving the dish. If you got a thinner end of the tail, don't worry about trussing it.

Fish substitutions: halibut steaks

Serves 4

2 Lb bone-in monkfish tail (prepared according to above instructions)
4 strips of bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 large yellow onion, diced
3 medium carrots, peeled and diced
1 celery rib, peeled and diced
10 whole garlic cloves, unpeeled
2 tsp finely minced rosemary and/or thyme
14.5 oz can diced tomatoes, drained
1/2 cup dry white wine
All-purpose flour for dredging monkfish
1 Tbsp canola or olive oil
Salt and black pepper
  1. Preheat the oven to 250F.
  2. Set a large skillet over medium heat. Add the bacon in one layer and cook stirring occasionally until nicely browned and the fat is rendered, 5-8 minutes.
  3. Add onion, carrots, celery, whole garlic cloves, and a generous pinch of salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender and golden brown, 10-12 minutes.
  4. Add the herbs, tomatoes, and wine. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 15 minutes. While the sauce is cooking, prepare the monkfish.
  5. Dry monkfish well on paper towels. Season it all over with salt and pepper, and dredge in flour, shaking off access. Set a large non-stick or cast-iron skillet over high heat. When hot, add the oil and swirl the skillet to coat. Place the fish in the pan without crowding and cook on all sides until golden brown (1-2 minutes per side). Remove monkfish from the pan and set aside.
  6. Taste the sauce and correct seasoning. Place monkfish in the pan with the sauce and spoon the sauce on top of it. Cover the skillet and place in the oven for about 18 minutes per inch of thickness. Start testing for doneness 5 minutes before the estimated cooking time is up. Monkfish does not flake like other fish, so it's hard to separate the flakes and look inside. The most reliable way to test it, is to insert an instant read thermometer into the thickest part (but not next to the bone). The fish is done when it's at 140F. If you don't have an instant read thermometer handy, try to separate the flesh from the bone -- if you encounter no resistance, monkfish is done (this can be a little tricky if your steaks are tied up).
  7. Serve immediately with the sauce and some good crusty bread for dipping. Mashed potatoes are also quite heavenly with this dish.
Note: unlike meat braises, I don't recommend making this dish in advance and reheating. You can make the sauce as far in advance as you'd like, but don't cook the fish until you are ready to serve it.


Anonymous said...

Sounds tasty, but did you know that the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch has some serious concerns about monkfish?

Helen said...

Hi Pam,

Yes, Le Soir is where we had that dish! I didn't realize they closed.

Can't wait to meet you in person at Newton Ed :)


Helen said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks for pointing out Monterey Bay Aquarium's concerns with monkfish. I realize they are concerned about many fish, but boycotting any of them does not make any sense to me (unless you want to make a political statement, which I don't). Interestingly enough, Chilean sea bass is still on their "Avoid" list, yet Whole Foods is making a huge splash about it and carrying it every single day lately. Just because Chilean sea bass is back, doesn't mean I am buying it every week. The same with monk. I buy it 3-4 times a year and really can't imagine how this can hurt.

I think it would be wiser for Monterey bay aquarium to encourage variety and moderation rather than abstinence.


Anonymous said...

After reading your wonderful description of the whole monk fish, I immediately Googled monk fish. Yikes!

I also loved reading your evidence of the great relationship you have with your fishmonger. That is so key to getting good fish--or good anything, for that matter. And even if you don't have access to New Deal, it still comes in handy. At my local supermarket, by regularly talking to the fishmonger and the butcher, I find they're more careful about selecting the best scallops or chops or whatever for me.

At the very least, don't be shy about asking to smell fish before you buy it. But do it with a smile, making it clear that you want their professional advice and help. This method gets me reassurances as to when the fish arrived in the store, as well as a sniff--or even direction to a selection that is fresher than what I was asking for.

Helen said...

Hi Terry,

New Deal is pretty fabulous. If you are ever in Boston, drop me a line -- I'll take you on a tour :)

Though you are really lucky in terms of meat. I heard great things about Chicago butchers. Unfortunately, there is nothing in Boston to brag about :(


Anonymous said...

Two words about the Monkfish Osso Buco: Oh, wow!

Happy, Happy New Year!


Blue Plate said...

Monkfish Osso Buco, who would have thunk, but your dish looks sooooo good.

Anonymous said...

Hi again Helen...I'm going to run across the street to Harbor Fish and get some Helen-cut monkfish (if I can bring myself to ignore the great in-shore scallops now coming in) and make this IMMEDIATELY! What a great idea!

Regarding the Monterey Bay Aquarium recommendation, I've been reading and thinking about this issue for a while -- not just monkfish, but overfishing in general and what we should do to be responsible as consumers and more importantly as writers and tastemakers -- and I'm afraid that the argument that 'my occasional purchase of [endangered fish ] can't hurt anything' really doesn't address the concerns here.

Demand directs the fishermen and women as they determine where and how to fish, since they are in a tough business and must go where the market tells them to go...and WE have to be active participants in this process if we want the fisheries to survive. To be specific, if we blog a great monkfish recipe, we participate in increasing demand for the fish.

My experience last winter, when I found out that the market for Maine shrimp was on the verge of collapse, and I started considering how much I'd miss the little critters, made me start to pay attention to the issue. I don't have the answers but I've come to take the question seriously...and feel that when I decide to publish a recipe I should at least be aware of what the potential impacts might be if demand for that species increases...

There are healthy fisheries and there are fisheries that are in trouble (and there are some farming operations that produce negative impacts on the marine environment, too) and it seems that being aware of these facts, and informing our readers of them, would be a good way to start to participate responsibly in the issue...

I'd love to join with you and others in a discussion about it...not sure of the best forum for that, but know that it's the right thing to do...sorry for the long comment on a tangential subject to the Monkfish Osso Buco, but when you think about it it's not so tangential, is it?

Helen said...

Hi Stephen,

That's a really thought provoking comment. Let me sit on this one a little.


Rods84 said...

I'm just an amateur home cook, but I've ordered whole monkfish several times. And the tail is the least of my motivation because there are two more exotic parts for which there is no substitute: the huge head and its equally huge liver.

On a 10-pound monkfish, the liver is usually 16 to 24 ounces and is removed by fisherman before heading ashore. Why?. Because monkfish liver is needed for the exotic Japanese dish Ankimo -- a sort of "Pate of the Sea." And given there is absolutely no suitable substitute, a black-market for monkfish liver has become more onerous.

As for the head -- which accounts for about half of a 10-lb. monkish --it just happens to make the best fish stock I've ever tasted. Trust me on this one, folks. Your Bouillabaisse (or Cioppino, or Mariscada, or Cacciucco, or Zuppa di Pesce or whatever fish stew or soup you like) will never have tasted as good.

-- Mike

P.S.: All that said, I still appreciate the recipe because I'm about to order another whole one. Perhaps I'll use the upper portion of tail for your recipe and use the lower portion for adding to my Bouillabaisse -- instead the other way around (in some form or fashion)

Tom Kobylarz said...


I am thinking about making this for Christmas Eve this year when our family does not eat meat.

I make regular Osso Bucco a few times a year with the veal shanks which has a broth, more wine etc. I see that the only liquids in this recipe are 1/2 cup white wine...no broth? I realize the cooking time is less, therefore needing less liquid because of reduction, etc.

Do you tend to add any liquid as you cook?



Helen said...

monkfish cooks a lot faster than veal, so you don't need nearly as much liquid. Also, the fish itself will release a lot of juice.