"I've always maintained that there is a very fine line between a daring, sexy older woman and mutton dressed as lamb."
Joan Collins (2012)
Here's another of those recipes that I have had on my must-try list for a while and only recently got round to making. I am talking about 22 years of a while here! And once again, the wait was far too long - as a dish this is as good as I always suspected it might be - not least because it's a recipe by Rick Stein. It's from his 1999 book (and TV series) "Rick Stein's Seafood Odyssey".
I tried a "mini"-version of this quite recently and my expectations about the merits of the dish were immediately met in full. OK, somewhat on the salty side, but Mr Stein was self-admittingly in open battle at the time with, what he has regularly termed since, the "salt police". In fairness to him many others were too and many I would say still are now.
But I really wanted to try it in its full "roast dinner" capacity and a couple of weekends ago my father had a lunch appointment in London so my mother was free to have lunch at mine and, as it happened, so too was my brother. Both do like fish but properly enjoy it when there are no bones to contend with. Monkfish is a perfect option to accommodate these preferences as it has no bones (strictly-speaking) in it. Instead, running through the tail is a "blade" of cartilage that is typically cut away in the filleting process, but for this recipe it is surgically removed in such a way as the tail remains as a whole "boneless" piece, perfect for stuffing and tying back up with string.
In fact, talking with Phil at my local fishmongers, Moxon's, the process is called "butterflying", which is exactly what might commonly be done to a leg of lamb were it required to be boneless, and is also why the French refer to this way of preparing a monkfish tail a "gigot de lotte", or a "leg of monkfish". But this particular recipe comes with more an Italian spirit - it certainly appears in the Italian section of Stein's book. For sure it's a dish with Mediterranean vibes running through it and I'd say it's now (or at least for now) my favourite treatment for monkfish.
In the spirit of a roast dinner we enjoyed the dish with some sliced courgettes roasted with olive oil, tarragon and chives, and some new potatoes, simply boiled. My brother commented: "Dad goes out to lunch and we get to eat better than him!". This brother will be invited again.
I tried preparing a monkfish tail this way a while back and really didn't do a great job. I think of myself as being pretty adept at prepping fish (though I say so myself), but this prep I found tricky. By contrast the tail I bought from Yorwarth's Fresh Fish at the High Street Kensington Farmers' Market a few weekends ago was prepared expertly by Martin Yorwarth himself (I'm not sure what the customer next in the queue was thinking was going on!), and likewise the tail I bought from Moxon's more recently was prepared equally deftly by Dani, one of the several brilliant fishmongers they employ. It really is for me a joy to watch masters of their craft deploying their skills. On balance, I'd suggest having the fishmonger do the butterflying for you (though I've described in the Notes what you're aiming to do) but, either way, once that has been done everything else is hardly tricky at all.
The stuffing ingredients are all available from delis and supermarkets but it may come as no great surprise that I am inclined to make them myself. For example, during summer, red peppers are abundant in the local farmers' markets as are they in my regular veg box delivery. So, to my mind, it only makes sense to home-make roasted red peppers rather than buy them pre-prepared. I've given the method in the Notes. Equally, preserved lemons are something that I tend to have a jar of home-made candidates to hand pretty much all the time. I do think the home-made version are superior but they take a fair amount of time to "mature" even being as simple as they are to prepare. Recipes are out there for those interested but they are used in such small quantities that shop-bought equivalents are perfectly usable.
Coming back to the salt - this dish can easily become overly salty given the nature of the ingredients. This is worth bearing in mind as salt can always be added but it's nigh-on impossible to remove. On this point, the monkfish tail can definitely be stuffed and prepped in advance but I wouldn't recommend it being done so the day before as the overall salt content will leach fluid from the fish and dry it out - something you definitely want to avoid with monkfish. A few hours ahead of time, though, will be absolutely fine.
Roast Stuffed Monkfish (Gigot de Lotte Farci au Four)
Ingredients (Serves 3-4)
800g-1kg skinned monkfish tail, central "bone" removed (see recipe intro and Notes)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6-8 salted anchovy fillets
6-8 strips of roasted red pepper (see recipe intro and Notes)
¼ preserved lemon (see recipe intro), flesh removed and skin cut into thin strips
3-4 sun-dried tomatoes, drained and thinly sliced
Good pinch of saffron, soaked for 10 mins in a splash of warm water
1-2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp black peppercorns, coarsely crushed using a pestle and mortar
2 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
1-2 tsp sea salt flakes
For the "gravy":
1-1½ tbsp extra virgin olive oil
125ml fish stock
1-2 tsp lemon juice
2 tsp capers, drained and rinsed
10g butter, diced and kept fridge-cold
2 tsp flat leaf parsley, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Open out the monkfish tail and season lightly with salt and pepper. Arrange on each of the cut sides the anchovy fillets and red pepper strips, then lay the strips of preserved lemon and sun-dried tomato slices down the length of the centre. Sprinkle the saffron-infused water over the stuffing and drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil. Tie the tail closed with string at approximately 1" intervals.
Preheat the oven to 200°C.
Scatter the crushed black peppercorns, chopped thyme leaves and sea salt flakes into a shallow, flame-proof roasting tin and roll the stuffed monkfish tail in this mixture to coat the exterior evenly. Lay the tail cut side up and drizzle over the remaining extra virgin olive oil.
Put the roasting tin in the heated oven for 20-25 mins until the fish is cooked through and once done lift the monkfish tail onto a carving board. Cover loosely with foil to keep warm.
To make the "gravy", pour the fish stock into the roasting tin and bring to the boil on the hob, scraping the base of the tin to release all that may have caught on it while in the oven. Strain this liquid through a sieve into a saucepan then add the extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice and reduce over a medium-high heat until it reaches a gravy consistency. Meanwhile, carve the monkfish tail into slices either side of the string and cut the string away with scissors. Pour any juices released, through the sieve, back into the gravy.
Add the capers to the gravy and then whisk in the cold butter until it emulsifies. Check and adjust the seasoning (it is unlikely to need much salt) and finally stir in the chopped parsley. Pour into a gravy boat and serve alongside the monkfish.
Preparing the monkfish tail: Trim away any residual membrane that was between the skin and the flesh of the fish. On one side of the tail the "bones" protrude more than on the other. Starting on this side, use a sharp filleting knife to cut close to the "bone" on either side down almost through to the bottom. Now use scissors to cut away this "bone". There might be a few scraps of cartilage remaining, but these will be small and inoffensive.
Roasted red pepper: Coat a red pepper (the long "Romano" variety work particularly well for this) with a film of cooking oil and a little salt and either place on a gas hob or put under a very hot grill turning regularly until the skin has blackened considerably. Place in a bowl and cover with cling film to cool. When cool enough to handle the skin will peel away easily and the flesh can be sliced. If storing for later use keep in the fridge along with any juices that will have been released.
"Rick Stein's Seafood Odyssey", Rick Stein (1999), pp. 102: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rick-Steins-Seafood-Odyssey-Stein/dp/0563551860