Back in the culinary Jurassic when fresh cod cod was actually cheap there was even less expensive fish I prized–monkfish. All flavor, meaty texture, and almost no bones. At the time, recently out of college, I was working at an upscale French restaurant that served lotte (as the French call monkfish) in a cream sauce for lunch. Monkfish had not yet gained enough traction to flop atop American mainstream fish counters. I bought my first lotte whole from a fishmonger in Haymarket Square in Boston, a toothy goggle-eyed monster that might have escaped from Beowulf’s cave. I paid $.89/lb for it. The seafood for this week’s Pesce all’ Acqua Pazza–Monkfish in Crazy Water costs way more than 89¢ a pound, but it’s still half the price of cod and much tastier.
If you’re late to the monkfish party it is sometimes described as “poor man’s lobster,” presumably for the knotty quality of its flesh when overcooked (like the springy thing that happens to lobster left in the pot too long). The same thing can happen if you don’t remove the integument (skin) covering monkish filets–it tightens up during cooking, so make the effort. Overcooking aside, what lobster and monkfish really share is luxurious flavor married to a satisfying texture. While the texture of the monkfish may recall lobster, it’s a distant memory and if you’re looking for lobster flavor monkfish will disappoint. It’s more nuanced than lobster, goes well with cream (as the French have known all along), yet definitely asserts itself as fish, not a crustacean. We love it so much that we cooked it for guests at our wedding (our own bit of madness I wouldn’t recommend) in the form of a monkfish bouride. Guests sniffed, tasted and when informed of what it was, responded, “Oh, is this the poor man’s lobster?”
Acqua pazza, “crazy water” in Italian, refers to a Neapolitan tradition for cooking fish in seawater flavored with olive oil and tomatoes (insane, right?). Regional Italians have a notable history of stone-souping whatever’s at hand–think Acqua Cotta (water and wild herbs) of the Maremma, and Acquarello (water plus grape skins and stems; also called Acqua Pazza) of Tuscany. But water + something else ≠ thin, watery thing, especially in this recipe, in which the crazy water is cooked into an aromatic tomato-ey elixir of goodness. If you’re not ready to roll with monkfish, you can use one of the other options Jody points out below. Just be glad you’re not cooking it for your own wedding reception. Enjoy. Ken
Pesce All’ Acqua Pazza – Monkfish in Crazy Water
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 12 pearl onions, peeled and cut in half
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 small hot pepper, sliced paper thin—you can adjust the amount of pepper you include, depending on how spicy you’d like the stew to be.
- 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- ½ cup sweet white wine
- 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes*
- ½ teaspoon crushed fennel seeds
- 1 strip of orange zest ½ inch wide
- 2 cups water
- ½ pint cherry tomatoes, cut in half
- ¼ cup basil cut into chiffonade, plus 12 whole leaves for garnish
- 2 pounds monkfish, trimmed of skin and veins, and cut into 4-inch pieces
- 4 large slices toasted or grilled rustic bread brushed with extra virgin olive oil
* In the summer when delicious fresh tomatoes are plentiful, use 2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped into ½-inch dice, instead of canned tomatoes.
- In a large deep-sided pan, heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, cut side down, season with salt,sear until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Flip the onions, add the sliced pepper and garlic and cook just until they release their perfume about a minute. Be careful not to let the garlic burn. Add the wine and reduce to a glaze. Add the canned tomatoes, fennel seed and orange zest, season with salt and pepper and cook for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add the water and cook until the liquid has reduced by half, about 40 minutes.
- Heat the remaining oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Taste and adjust seasonings. If the sauce is too acidic, add a half teaspoon or so of sugar. Stir in half the basil.
- Season the fish on each side with salt and pepper and add, skin side down, if there is one, to the pan. Cook until golden brown and the skin is crisp, about 3 minutes. Transfer the fish to a plate, seared side up, add the cherry tomatoes to the pan and sear. Toss with the remaining basil.
- Add the fish to the tomato sauce skin side up, this time, and cook over a low heat until the fish is done, an additional 5 minutes or so.
- Set the toasted bread in 4 warm flat soup bowls. Spoon the fish with some sauce over the bread. Top with cherry tomatoes.
Who wouldn’t want to make this dish? The name alone is compelling, and the steps are super simple. In the summer, I throw a corn cob into the broth when it is simmering and then add kernels in the stew. It’s also fantastic with swordfish, clams or mussels.