If you've seen a photo of a monkfish and unexpectedly gasped, we don't blame you. Monkfish's large brown bodies, tiny eyes and sharp teeth are reminiscent of a deep-sea monster from the movies. And the more you know about them, the more that monster image applies.
These fish don't even swim. Monkfish are bottom feeders that "walk" on the ocean floor with their fins as they search for food. They have large mouths to capture as much prey as possible and will eat just about anything that comes their way. Deep-sea monster? We think so.
What Is Monkfish?
Monkfish primarily live on North Atlantic waters and are often caught off the waters of Scandinavia, the Mediterranean or anywhere from Maine to North Carolina.
They grow to be relatively large fish; males can be about 3 feet (0.9 meter) long, while females can be as big as 4.5 feet (1.3 meters). Despite that size, the tail is the most prized part, and the rest of the fish typically is not eaten. The tail meat is firm and nearly boneless, so it's super easy to prepare, and provides up to 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) filets from both side of the spine.
The meat is low in fat and sodium and high in protein and is a good source of B6 and B12 vitamins as well as potassium. Depending on how it's prepared, expect a 4-ounce (113-gram) serving to contain about 86 calories, 16 grams of protein and just 1 gram of fat.
What Does Monkfish Taste Like?
While monkfish might not be known for its good looks, it is known for its delicious flavor and lobster-like texture.
"Many people will tell you it's the poor man's lobster, and I see what they're saying. Monkfish has a particular springiness to it that's similar," says Brandon Chavannes, executive chef at The Betty in Atlanta. "In my mind, however, monkfish is more like a grassier tasting grouper."
Depending on your region, you can find monkfish filets at your typical grocery store. But if you can visit your local fishmonger or farmers market, that's ideal, as this fish is often difficult to clean and is best left to a pro. When selecting filets, monkfish should be pearlescent white with a faint pink hue.
"Monkfish is one of those fish that can be intimidating to buy whole and butcher," says chef Adam Evans of Birmingham's Automatic Seafood and Oysters. He recommends buying filets with the bone in them if you can. Otherwise, deboned filets are the way to go. "I really do like to cook monkfish on the bone since it cooks more evenly and produces a better result," he says.
Thanks to its mild taste and slight sweetness, Evans finds monkfish versatile and easy to cook with. He says he thinks it does have the texture of lobster, which "makes it really special."
How to Cook Monkfish
One good thing about monkfish is it's so adaptable. You can substitute monkfish in just about any dish that calls for a white fish. It won't fall apart because the filets stay firm while they're cooking.
Once you unwrap your fillet from the store, make sure the store cleaned the monkfish correctly and no silver skin or membranes remain. Place the monkfish on a cutting board and salt the fish generously about an hour before cooking. This will help pull out any remaining liquids.
The texture of cooked monkfish will be more lobster-like than a flaky fish — think juicy, firm and plump. One of the main preparations for it — like lobster — is to simply sear it in a hot pan with butter and oil and then serve it with capers, lemon and drawn butter.
Chavannes loves to season monkfish in Middle Eastern spices and cook it on the grill, or to braise it along with rich Spanish ingredients like peppers and tomatoes. The acids from the tomato help accentuate all of the monkfish's mild flavors.
You can also sear it on the bone and braise it until tender. It brings out the lobster-like characteristics of the meat, Evans says. He enjoys accompanying it with morel mushrooms, spring onion or ramps. In other words, you can pretty much do anything with monkfish and it will taste great.