"I'm fixing a hole..."
Paul McCartney (1967)
This is a genius of a dish, which is perhaps not that unexpected, coming as it does from J. Sheekey, the iconic London seafood restaurant of over 100 years. The recipe came from their cookbook "J. Sheekey FISH" and was brought to my attention by a charming couple of neighbours. It was little more than an instant before I became an owner of the book and I thoroughly recommend it to all seafoodies.
So, OK, there's no buco in the osso here but the thinking is pretty apparent. Monkfish is a meaty fish that does have that round central 'bone' (it's actually cartilage) running through the tail but I admire the boldness of proposing beef stock in a fish dish and, having tried this several times, I can only applaud the innovation. It really works! What is so clever is the deftness in the way that all the components of the traditional dish of Ossobuco are captured but in a way delicate enough that a piece of fish, albeit about the most meaty variety, is able to have its voice heard.
I was delighted to have had a telephone conversation last Saturday with Martin Yorwarth from whom this monkfish came. Now that we have the farmers' market at High Street Kensington, where he runs his stall on a Sunday there's the chance to buy fish varieties from another nearby coastal area - on the south-east of England - harvested in an environmentally conscious way by his day boats. And the whole monkfish tail I bought from him was sensational, but then it would be because, as he explained to me, although monkfish are caught in south-east waters year round, winter is when they are at their best.
When I delved deeper into the traditional Ossobuco I discovered that it was commonly accompanied by a Risotto allo Zafferano (Saffron Risotto), also very well known as a
Risotto alla Milanese in recognition of its place of origin. What perplexed me was that, from my visits to Italy, I thought I knew risotto to be a primo, a dish or a course in its own right, served just prior to the main. My darling Italian friend, the ever-belissima Manu, explained to me that when an Ossobuco, correctly served with a Risotto allo Zafferano, was on the menu, two courses became one! Phew!
Having tried this dish accompanied by the risotto I do think it makes for a wonderful meal, but some creamy mash would be very good too. Either way, this is worth considering for a fishy Sunday lunch, it's very easy to make, and if you fancied a glass of (a light) red wine to go with then there wouldn't be much chance of disappointment.
As this dish comes from a casserole type method of cooking I couldn't help myself from deviating from the original recipe in which the fish and the sauce are cooked totally separately. Instead I've gone for an approach in which the fish, after being browned in the pan, is braised, however briefly, in what will become the gravy. To fully achieve that "round" image that an Ossobuco conjures up you can tie the steaks with string but it really isn't essential. And for the best results with the sauce it is worth being rather fastidious about cutting the veg into very small dice.
I've tried this recipe using chicken stock, beef stock and a beef stock cube and it turned out fantastic in all cases. I've also made it using fennel instead of celery and rosemary instead of thyme and again, I was delighted with the results.
I have to say that serving this Ossobuco of Monkfish with Risotto alla Milanese really makes for a sensational meal. While a traditional recipe (like the one I drew from in "The Silver Spoon") for the risotto would use a very full-flavoured meat stock (and I've tried it that way), the ideal result in my view comes from making the risotto with a good veg stock. And Manu approves!
Ossobuco of Monkfish
Ingredients (Serves 2)
2 x 200g monkfish steaks (optional: tie the steaks into rounds with string)
Plain flour, for dusting
Olive oil, for frying
25-30g unsalted butter
10g shallot (or onion), finely chopped (about 1½ tbsp)
25g carrot, finely diced
25g celery, finely diced
Half a garlic clove, finely diced
2 tsp tomato purée
Saffron strands, a pinch
Thyme leaves from 1 sprig, finely chopped
60ml white wine
125ml beef stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the Gremolata:
1 garlic clove, chopped
Zest of half a lemon
1 tbsp flat leaf parsley leaves, chopped
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
First make the sauce. Melt half the butter in a saucepan then add the shallot (or onion), carrot, celery and garlic and fry gently for a few minutes until they have softened but not coloured at all. Cut the remaining butter into dice and store in the fridge until ready to finish the sauce. Add in the tomato purée, saffron and chopped thyme and stir for a minute. Next pour in the white wine and beef stock, increase the heat and let it reduce to about a third, or the texture of a gravy. Season to taste. While the sauce is reducing, preheat the oven to 200°C and put in an oven dish.
When the sauce is ready, dust the monkfish steaks in the flour and heat a little olive oil in a frying pan. Add the monkfish steaks to the pan and fry over a medium-high heat for 3 minutes per side so they are browned.
Pour a little of the sauce into the oven dish, place the monkfish on top and then pour over all the rest of the sauce (keep the saucepan to hand). Cover with foil and bake in the oven for approximately 8 minutes depending on the thickness of the steaks.
While the fish is in the oven prepare the Gremolata. Pile the chopped garlic, lemon zest and parsley on a chopping board and chop them together fine. Put this mixture in a small bowl and combine well with the extra virgin olive oil.
When the fish is ready transfer the steaks to warmed plates and pour the sauce back into the saucepan. If it has become thick, just add a little water or stock. Bring the sauce to the boil and gradually whisk in the remaining cold, diced butter. Pour the sauce over and around the monkfish steaks and serve, ideally with Risotto alla Milanese (see note).
Risotto alla Milanese: To make for 2 as an accompaniment to this dish, 150g Arborio rice and 650ml hot vegetable stock (keep it on a simmer through the cooking process) should be just about right. Melt 20g butter in a sauté pan or wide saucepan and sweat a small finely chopped shallot for 2-3 mins without colouring. Add the rice to the pan and stir it in well for a minute to coat with the shallot and butter. Pour in a little of the stock and stir vigorously over a medium-high heat until the stock has been absorbed. Lower the heat to medium and keep adding a ladle-full or so of stock, stirring continuously adding the next batch of stock only once the last has been absorbed. Before adding the last batch of stock add a very good pinch of saffron and to finish off stir in another 10-15g cold butter. Season to taste.
"J. Sheekey FISH", Allan Jenkins, Tim Hughes and Howard Sooley (2012), pp. 196: https://www.amazon.co.uk/J-Sheekey-FISH-Allan-Jenkins/dp/1848093802
"The Silver Spoon", Phaidon Press (2005), pp 330. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Silver-Spoon-Cookery-Phaidon/dp/0714862452
J Sheekey, website accessed 6 December 2020