Food and Drink: A monstrous delight, no bones about it: Pearly white, in chunks or delicate thin slices, monkfish makes a robust, big-flavoured meal

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Indy Lifestyle Online
There was a time when monkfish was said to be a cheap substitute for lobster. Wrong colour, but who would notice when it was masked by a sauce? Wrong taste, but something of the lobster's sweetness lingers on, and the right sauce can distract attention from that shortcoming. It was the texture - not the same, but comparably firm - that made the substitution almost viable.

But it's many years since monkfish has been considered a cheap substitute for anything. It may not be one of the all-time great fish, not up with turbot and the like, but it is robust, with a pleasing if not superior flavour, and relatively bone free - ideal for the fish-shy carnivore.

Monkfish is great for the barbecue, either whole or in chunks on skewers, as it holds together nicely. Unless it is thinly sliced, however, it is not particularly well suited to the more delicate, light-handed treatment that befits so many other white-fleshed fish. Big flavours (garlic, tomato, fennel, olive oil and brassy herbs) are what suit it best.

You will rarely see a whole monkfish on a fishmonger's slab - the monstrous head and razor-sharp fangs are considered far too off- putting. Instead the skinned tails, pearly white, will be undauntingly laid out. They can be as small as a pound (half a kilo) each, just enough for two, but are better a pound or two heavier, particularly if you want to roast them whole. Ask the fishmonger to skin them properly, making sure that the encircling thin membrane is removed.

If you do find a complete fish, you can see instantly why it is also known as the anglerfish. A long, wavering 'fishing rod' rises from the head, with a bright, worm-like tip that is used to attract prey in much the same way as bait by a human angler. Other names you may come across are the French lotte, or the American goosefish.

Incidentally, my husband tells me that goosefish is being imported into Britain, and, though it looks similar to our own, it has a greyer hue and is decidedly inferior. Be warned.

From Rick Stein's essential book, English Seafood Cookery (Penguin), I have discovered another monkfish to steer clear of: slinkfish. Slinkies are monkfish that have just spawned, and are weak and weary. Their flesh is flabby, their bodies scrawny, their flavour wasted away. Not worth buying at all. You are not that likely to be sold a slinkfish or a goosefish by the fishmonger, but if in doubt, query it or opt for something else.

Another tip from Stein is to slice monkfish thinly for quick cooking, rather than cutting it into chunks - an idea I've appropriated for my 'Monkfish with salsa verde'. The flavour and texture are transformed into something far more delicate: you would hardly know it was the same fish. Stein serves whole roast tail of monkfish with aoli and fennel, a combination that can't fail.

I've noticed that the monkfish I buy in London exudes a huge amount of liquid as it cooks, and if left to stand for any length of time afterwards; so if you're adding it to a stew, boil the sauce down until it is very thick, before slipping in the fish, and serve as soon as it is cooked. It may be that my monkfish has been sitting around on ice for too long and has absorbed a good deal of melt-water.

Lotte Dunkerquoise

This recipe from the north of France employs beer rather than wine or a court-bouillon for poaching the monkfish, and as the basis for the sauce.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 2lb (900g) monkfish tail, filleted and cut into 1 1/2 in (4cm) chunks

2 sprigs parsley

1 bay leaf

2 sprigs of thyme

1oz (30g) butter

3 shallots, finely chopped

3tbs tomato puree

4tbs creme fraiche or double cream

7fl oz (210ml) lager

salt and pepper

Preparation: Season the monkfish with salt and pepper. Tie the herbs together with string to make a bouquet garni.

Melt the butter in a frying pan large enough for the monkfish. Fry the shallots gently until translucent. Lay the monkfish on the shallots and tuck the bouquet garni among them. Pour the beer over, cover and simmer on a very gentle heat for 10 minutes or so until the monkfish is barely cooked. Transfer the fish to a warmed serving dish and keep warm while you finish the sauce.

Return the pan to the heat and stir in the tomato puree and cream. Boil until reduced to a moderately thick sauce. Stir in any liquid given off by the monkfish and reduce a little more if necessary. Taste and adjust seasoning, then pour over the fish and serve.

Gigot de lotte

Monkfish cooked like a leg of lamb, a gigot, with garlic, rosemary, white wine and olive oil. It's one of the best and simplest ways of serving it. The marinated fish can also be cooked on a barbecue.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 2-3lb (900-1,350g) monkfish tail

2 cloves of garlic, cut into fine shards

leaves of a small sprig of rosemary

1/2 red onion, sliced thinly

1 glass of dry white wine

4fl oz (110ml) extra virgin olive oil

salt and lots of freshly ground pepper

Preparation: Make slits all over the monkfish tail and push in slivers of garlic and rosemary leaves, using the handle-end of a teaspoon, or some other thin, blunt instrument. Place in a plastic bag with the onion, pour in the wine and oil, and season with a little salt and lots of pepper. Knot the bag tightly and sit it in a dish to catch any drips. Marinate for at least an hour (up to 12 in the fridge), turning the bag occasionally. If necessary, bring back to room temperature before cooking.

Remove from bag. Place the onion slices in an oven-proof dish and sit the monkfish on top. Pour on the marinade. Roast at 190C/375F/Gas Mark 5 for 25-30 minutes, basting occasionally with the pan juices.

Fried monkfish with salsa verde

My husband and I argued over this dish. He thinks the salsa verde would be better with a whole roast monkfish, whereas I think it works best with the more delicate flavour of flash- fried slices of monkfish. Either way, you will end up with more salsa verde than you need for one sitting, but it keeps in the fridge for several days, and goes well with cold or hot meats.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 2-3lb (900-1,350g) monkfish tail, filleted

salt and pepper

olive oil for frying

For the salsa verde: 1 large bunch of parsley

a generous handful of basil

6 tinned anchovy fillets

1oz (25g) capers

2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

1 slice stale white bread

1 shallot

3tbs white wine vinegar

5-7fl oz (190-250ml) olive oil

salt and pepper

Preparation: Tear the leaves off the parsley and basil. Tear up the bread roughly. Put leaves and bread into a processor bowl with all the remaining salsa ingredients except the oil. Whizz, gradually trickling in the oil to form a smooth sauce. Taste and adjust seasonings. It should be slightly sharp but not too acidic. If necessary, add more oil or bread to dampen the sharpness. Pour into a bowl, cover and set aside.

Slice the monkfish fillets, across the grain, into pieces about 1/4 in (6mm) thick. Just before you eat, fry the monkfish slices briskly in olive oil over a high heat. Drain briefly on kitchen paper and serve with the salsa verde.