Monkfish (Lophius americanus), also known as goosefish is a type of anglerfish that is common in the Western North Atlantic. As an anglerfish, they hide in the mud or sand and catch prey with the use of a specialized “lure” on its head. They are caught year-round along the U.S. Eastern seaboard but landings increase when the fish migrate to shallower water in the spring. There are several other fish within this genus that are caught in the Atlantic and Pacific, that are also sold as monkfish. The angelshark, an unrelated endangered species from the European coast has also historically been called monkfish. Most monkfish species are smaller than the American variety, which can get to over 50 pounds (although I’ve seen at least one even bigger than that back in the 1990’s).
Monkfish have been seen in European fish markets since at least the Middle Ages, but were of little to no commercial value in North America until around the late 20th century. They were a bycatch of the early bottom trawlers that fishermen often brought home. The good taste of monktails would not be a secret forever and eventually the liver and tail meat were marketed to the public. Monkfish has become much more well-known in the 21st century, turning this once inexpensive species into an ingredient seen on high-end menus. The two manages stocks of Atlantic monkfish are not overfished, which makes them appealing to both chefs and consumers. These fish are almost exclusively caught commercially using otter trawl or gillnets, yet I have personally seen restaurants selling “line-caught” monkfish, which, until I see evidence for, is deceptive marketing. Monkfish are rarely caught on a hook, which is why the recreational fishery is almost non-existent.
Monkfish are not a pretty fish, almost alien looking. They are sold whole, especially in Europe and increasingly in fancier fish markets in the US, but are more often found in fillets. With a fish that is mostly a gaping maw of pointed teeth, most of the meat is in the tail section. These meaty tails and the livers are the marketable parts of the fish, if time allows, fishermen will try to remove the heads to conserve fish hold space and get a better price. I remember many fishing boats coming in with several boxes of monkfish tails, a box or two of the monkfish livers tied up in plastic bags and then the rest of the monkfish would be left whole. If you buy a whole monkfish watch out for the teeth, if you grab the fish wrong they will go through a gloved hand like a dozen hypodermic needles. Fresh or frozen tail meat is available year-round and should be a firm looking piece (skin-on or skinless), off-white in color. Avoid if it looks dried out or discolored.
Monkfish is a sturdy piece of fish that can be cooked in a variety of ways. The firm texture and sweet meat of monkfish has given rise to the moniker of “poor man’s lobster.” These days however, fresh monkish can set you back nearly as far as lobster, sometimes even more per pound depending upon how close you are to the source.
Lottes en Ragoust (Ragout of Monkfish)
From: Le Cuisinier françois (1651) by François Pierre de la Varenne
Ratissez-les dans l’eau chaude jusques à ce qu’elles soient blanches,vuidez-les & les mettez avec Vin blanc, beurre frais, sel, poivre oygnon & capres, faites les mitonner, & empeschez que vostre sàuce ne se tourne, c’est à dire, qu’elle ne vienne en huile; garnissez de champignons & laittances, & servez.
(Apologies if I transcribed some words incorrectly)