Thursday, January 10, 2008

Braised monkfish tail with fennel, tomatoes, and oranges

Whole fish is like sex. It's one of the greatest pleasures in life, but is extremely messy and makes most people uncomfortable unless practiced in the confines of a committed monogamous relationship. Next time you get tempted by the idea of presenting a whole beast to oohing and aahing guests, just say no. Save it for an intimate dinner for two. Most people (even the fish eating kind) are turned off by fish eyes, don't know how to get around the little pin bones, and wonder how something as perverse as eating fish cheeks could be legal in this country. But who can blame us cooks for longing to find a fish dish that says "a holiday feast" the way a whole turkey or prime rib does? After years of searching I finally found one -- a whole braised monkfish tail. That's what I served to my guests this Christmas. I found it refreshing to have a main course that didn't put everyone into a post-dinner coma. What's even better is that this dish requires no last minute prep leaving you free to entertain your guests.

If you are thinking of the famous picture of Julia Child holding a huge monster of a monk, have no fear. The scary head is taken off by your fishmonger. All you'll be cooking is a tail (the only edible part of monk). The thick bone that runs down the middle is a breeze to remove at serving time. It keeps the meat wonderfully moist and makes for an impressing "whole fish" presentaion, so I recommend you keep it in if you are lucky enough to find monkfish sold on the bone. The only thing your guests will see on their plates is white fillet that is as nonthreatening as a chicken breast, only a lot tastier.

Here are some tips on working with monkfish.

Find a good fish market that can get you a whole monk tail. If you are in the Boston area, New Deal, Wulf's, and Captain Marden's will happily get you a fabulous monkfish tail. Most supermarkets (even Whole Foods) only carry boneless fillets. Nothing wrong with using them, but the results won't be quite as juicy as monk cooked on the bone. When choosing monk tails, go for the smaller ones (under 2 Lb) as they are more tender and delicious than the big ones.

Besides the skin (that your fishmonger will remove for you), the monk tail is covered with a connective membrane that has to be completely trimmed off just like the silver skin on a pork or beef tenderloin. Don't skip this step or you'll end up with a chewy fish. Use a sharp boning or paring knife to trim it all off exposing the white flesh underneath. Here are illustrated instructions from Fine Cooking on how to do it. They show you a pork tenderloin, but it works the same way for monkfish.

Braised monkfish tail with fennel, tomatoes, and oranges

Fish substitutions:
this sauce tastes great with pretty much any seafood, particularly white fleshed fish, swordfish, squid, shrimp, and scallops. But the cooking method of the fish itself will vary. Swordfish is best grilled or broiled, scallops are best seared, and shrimp is best grilled or seared. Squid and white fish can be braised in the sauce at low temperature just like the monkfish.

Serves 6

3 whole monkfish tails, bone-in (1.5 - 2 Lb each)
2 fennel bulbs with fronds (green tops that look like dill)
3 oranges
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
28 oz can of diced tomatoes, drained
1/3 cup golden raisins
Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Trim monkfish as described above. Refrigerate while preparing the sauce.
  2. Core fennel bulbs and slice thinly. Mince the fronds and reserve for garnish.
  3. Zest and section the oranges (keeping the zest and sections in separate bowls). Squeeze the juice from the leftover membranes into the bowl with sections.
  4. Set a 12" oven-proof skillet or a large dutch oven over medium heat. Add pine nuts and toast them stirring often until golden, about 5 minutes. Remove into a bowl and set aside.
  5. Return the skillet to high heat, add olive oil, fennel and a generous pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until fennel is golden brown, 10-15 minutes, regulating the heat so that the fennel is browning, but not burning.
  6. Add the garlic, orange zest, orange juice accumulated in the bowl with sections (reserve sections for later), and tomatoes. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 15 minutes. Stir in the raisins. You can make the sauce up to this point a day in advance, cool, cover, and refrigerate overnight. Then bring it back to a simmer on the stove top before continuing the recipe.
  7. Preheat the oven to 275F. This is not a typo. The key to juicy and tender monkfish is cooking it very slowly.
  8. Generously season monkfish tails with salt and pepper and place them in one layer in the skillet with the sauce. Spoon the sauce over them. If your skillet or dutch oven is not big enough to fit the monkfish comfortably, lay the tails out in some 2-4 inch deep oven-proof dish that's large enough and pour the sauce over them. Cover the skillet (or use foil to cover the baking dish) and place in the middle of the oven.
  9. Cook until the fish reaches 130F in the thickest part of the tail near the bone (just make sure the thermometer is not touching the bone when you insert it). This will take anywhere from 40 to 60 minutes depending on the size and shape of your monkfish tails. Start checking the temperature after 40 minutes. If you don't have a thermometer, 130F is when you can almost separate the fish from the bone in the thickest part, but still encounter some resistance and see some translucency in the center.
  10. Stir in the orange sections and return to the oven for 5 more minutes. Remove from heat. Sprinkle with pine nuts and fennel fronds. Serve.


Peter M said...

Ahh monkfish, the poorman's lobster...great fish and a whole tail here (toronto) goes for about $15.

Anonymous said...

i REAAAAAAAAAAALLY encourage you to look at this lol.

too bad for me i got too curious about the julia child's comment, so i had to google this monkfish, because i had never heard of it. its scary.


Anonymous said...

ps- just read the first part about the fish because the rest of this article goes on a long drawn-out tangent... with crude language.


mattwright said...

Monkfish really is great. I like to cut it into medallions and lightly saute it. Goes great with almost any vegetable.

Anonymous said...

This looks fabulous. Can't wait to try it!

blister said...

there's a video to show the cleaning of a monkfish
more pictures please

irawanto said...

great :-)