The Local Food Report: Meet monkfish

Have you ever seen a monkfish? They are, to quote my husband "pretty ugly looking things" that look more like Gelatinous Starship Enterprises than any fish you've ever seen. Here—take a look:

Just to be clear, that man up there is not my husband. He's someone who went fishing with Kayman Charters in Gloucester, and they were nice enough to share his photo with me because I did not have one of my own. You see what Alex means, though, about the Gelatinous Starship Enterprise, right? That monkfish must be at least two thirds head.

Which is a shame, really, because the only meat is in the tail. There's the tail meat and the liver, which is sort of attached to the tail, but we never see the liver around here because it's such a delicacy in Asia. They cure it and serve it as nigiri or sashimi in places like Japan, and it's in such high demand over there that the boats here cut it away from the tail meat and ship it off to market right away.

At any rate, for each twenty pounder, you only get about five to seven pounds of meat, and even that is a lot of work. First you have to deal with all the slime and gook that comes with the head, and then, once you get past that, you have to separate the skin from the meat, and then the meat from a sausage-casing like layer that surrounds it. It's hard work.

But if you like monkfish—and I do—it's worth it. The meat has a texture similar to shrimp or lobster meat that, when cooked properly, snaps rather nicely when you eat it. (It's also known as Poor Man's Lobster for this reason.) Not only that, but it has a subtle, not-too-fishy flavor, sort of like a cross between cod and striped bass. This lends it well to chefs and high end restaurants, but most people don't really cook it that often at home.

Alex says that's mainly because for a long time, monkfish has had a reputation around here as trash fish. Locally, the boats that get it are mostly bringing it in as bycatch—scallop dredgers and groundfish draggers pick it up as they move along the ocean floor—although some boats are also starting to target it. Which leads to the other reason it's not that popular—sustainability issues. While most scientists agree that monkfish population levels are fine, dragging is not considered a sustainable harvesting method because of the bycatch and the damage it does to the ocean floor. That said, according to NOAA, monkfish habitat is only minimally vulnerable to these fishing gears.

It's kind of hard to know what to think. But my guess would be that monkfish, like most things, is fine in moderation. And a fish this ugly, well, it needs some love.

If you're into it, here are some recipes to try. If you took me up on my suggestion to make ratatouille this summer, I'd go for this Cooking Light recipe for Monkfish with Ratatoille. I've also been eying this Monkfish and Clam Bourride, from a 2002 issue of Gourmet, and The Minimalist's take on Monkfish with Mashed Potatoes and Thyme looks simple and elegant.

Happy cooking!


Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I envy you that monkfish! I think it's a wonderful cooking fish. It's one of the few that can stand up to long cooking times in liquid, so it makes a great stew.

I'd never seen one that big -- thanks for posting the photo.

Elspeth said...

Hi Tamar,

Isn't it huge?! The caption says 20 pounds, and Alex says he's seen up to 60, but this one seems pretty big to me. When we were looking online, we also found a picture of a monkfish lying flat on the bottom—pretty creepy. Check it out!


Anne said...

Hey Elspeth,
A nice article! I don't view them as ugly, but really cool! They are interesting and unusual critters from my biologist's point of view. In the 'olden' days (pre-1980), they were caught up to almost a meter and a half long. The big ones are all females and they sometimes eat smaller monkfish (not to mention lots of fish, along with birds, coke cans, work gloves...whatever comes along).
Here are some links with photos or video:

Keep up the good work.

Elspeth said...

Hi Anne!

Thanks for passing these along...I especially love the Julia Child photo. What a kick!


Anonymous said...

Hi Elspeth-
My monkfish story- Many years ago(B.K), Julie Nauman, Joe and I and I had dinner at the Red Inn, and I had monkfish. When we got back to Orleans, we decided to see what sort of fish it was, so I checked a field guide. The drawing had us hysterically laughing about what I had just eaten.
(I still love it though.)
Thanks for the photo!


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