Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Monkfish with Tomato Saffron Sauce

You know the joke about the engineer, physicist, and mathematician staying in a hotel?  There is a fire in the bathroom.  Engineer runs in, throws some water over the fire; the fired goes out.  The physicist runs in, measures the exact mount of water necessary to put out that fire, throws it over the fire; the fire goes out.  The mathematician runs in, looks at the fire and goes back to bed confident that the solution exists.

I have no physical proof that this monkfish dish has a Spanish birth certificate.  I haven't eaten it in Spain, and I wasn't able to find a recipe for this in any Spanish books or on-line.  But I have seen glistening monkfish tails in very conceivable size at the market in San Sebastian not far from tomatoes, garlic, and saffron.  In that lovely city, I have also eaten many fish dishes that involved the techniques of searing and an olive oil based emulsion.  The only logical conclusion to this is that someone in Spain must be cooking this monkfish dish or something very similar.  Like the mathematician in the joke, I am satisfied with this theoretical proof, and this monkfish is one of the dishes I cook whenever I want to remember my trip to Spain.

Choosing tomatoes: You can use both canned (crushed) and fresh tomatoes.  If using fresh tomatoes, put an X into the bottom of each one with a sharp knife, then dunk into boiling water for 10 seconds, the skins will blister and you'll be able to slip them off easily.  No need to seed the tomatoes, just slice them thin.  Fresh tomatoes will let the flavor of the other ingredients really come through giving you a more complex dish.  Ideally, I try to use fresh tomatoes when they are in season, but since that's a very short period in New England, where I live, I found that Tasty Tom's or Backyard Farms' tomatoes serve me well the rest of the year.  To intensify their flavor, sprinkle them with salt after slicing and let them sit for 20 minutes.

Trimming monkfish: Monkfish is covered in a membrane that needs to be removed before cooking.  It's the same technique as removing the silver skin from meat.  For every pound of fish you want to serve, buy 1.3 Lb of boneless fillet to account for trimming.  Don't be surprised if you encounter a few worms under the membrane.  They are not the most appetizing sight, and should be removed, but don't panic if you miss one -- they are harmless once the fish is cooked.   

Choosing a skillet: If your monkfish is at least 2.5 inches in diameter, you shouldn't have sticking problems even in a stainless steel pan.  Smaller monkfish tend to be more delicate, so it's safer to use a non-stick pan.  Avoid using seasoned cast iron since it can be damaged by acidic ingredients in the sauce.   When in doubt use a non-stick pan.

Serves 2

4 oz fresh tomatoes, peeled and sliced (or 3 oz crushed canned tomatoes) -- see note above
1 Lb trimmed monk fillets (buy 1.3 Lb) -- see note above
1 Tbsp grape seed oil
2 garlic cloves, sliced
3 Tbsp olive oil
pinch of saffron
Salt and Piment d'Espelette (or black pepper)

Salting fish (1 - 48 hours before cooking):
If you can plan ahead, sprinkle fish with salt all over, cover and refrigerate.  Salting in advance will make it more juicy and flavorful.

Preparing tomatoes (20 minutes before cooking):
Put tomatoes in a small bowl.  If using fresh tomatoes, sprinkle them with salt to taste and let them sit for 20 minutes before using.

Searing fish:
Set a 10 inch non-stick skillet with 1 Tbsp grape seed oil over high heat.  Dry the fish thoroughly on paper towels.  Sprinkle the fish with piment d'espelette (or some other mild chili or black pepper).  If you haven't salted it ahead, salt it now.  When the oil shimmers, add the fish to the skillet and cook without disturbing until the first side browns and the fish releases easily, 2-3 minutes.  

 Flip the fish, cook for 1 min per side on all the other sides (monkfish is cylindrical or triangular so it has 3-4 large sides).  Turn off heat, but keep the fish in the pan. 

Making the sauce:
Add a few spoonfuls of juice from the tomatoes to the pan with fish and shake the pan for about a minute until the juice picks up the brown bits. 

Add the oil and garlic with a little pinch of salt. Set the pan over low heat and cook shaking constantly until garlic gets aromatic, about 1 minute. 

Add the tomatoes and saffron and cook shaking the pan and whisking the sauce until the center of the fish reaches 125F.  This will take 3-8 minutes depending on the size of the fish.  During the whole cooking time, flip the fish ever minute, and spoon the sauce over it.  The goal is to keep everything in constant motion (shaking the pan, and whisking the sauce) to help the sauce thicken and emulsify (prevent the liquid and oil from separating).  Remove the fish to a warm plate. Whisk the sauce vigorously. It should be almost emulsified. Taste and correct salt. Pour over fish and serve.

Troubleshooting:  If the sauce separates in the end, whisk in 2 tsp heavy cream.  This will help hold it together.


Colette (Coco) said...

I love the exotic sauce. Saffron does well with fish. This is lovely, a weeknight must-try!

Chilling said...

I think salting dehydrates the fish.

Chilling said...

I think salting dehydrates the fish.

Helen said...

salting does draw the moisture out, but only temporarily. If you let the fish sit for at least an hour, the moisture will get drawn back in. It acts like a brine and helps the fish retain moisture during cooking. If anything you'll end up with juicier fish. But it's important to let the salt absorb. I salt all my proteins a day ahead if possible. If you don't have time to wait, salt right before cooking. Even a 5 minute delay will start drawing out the moisture.