October 2012

Browsing the Cookbooks for Monkfish Recipes

I JUST GOT MY WEEKLY E-MAIL FROM MERMAID’S GARDEN, the CSF (Community Supported Fishery) I belong to, telling me what fish had been caught this week for me—and the other 200+ CSF members. Monkfish!   

I will never forget the first time I ate monkfish. We were on the road somewhere in southern France—on the outskirts of Orange, I think, in the Vaucluse—and we stopped at a bistro for dinner. On the menu, under Poisson, was something called lotte.  “What is this lotte?” I inquired. “Une espèce de poisson,” was the reply (“a type of fish”), which was about as helpful as when I had asked—this time in bilingual Montréal—“what is the soupe du jour?” and the answer came back: “the soup of the day.” Really? I’d been hoping for a few more details. For starters, was lotte an ocean fish, from the Mediterranean, a lake, a stream? Was it mackerel cousin or might-as-well-be-Dover-sole? Anyway, I decided to take a leap of faith, and it turned out to be delicious. I’ve eaten it more than a few times since, especially enjoying it in Mediterranean soups and stews.  

This time around, thanks to Bianca and Mark at Mermaid’s Garden, I learn quite a bit more about the fish itself. As they wrote in their e-mail:

“There are a lot of interesting things about Lophius americanus, but perhaps the most curious thing about this fish is what and how it eats. Recently we got an email telling us about a monkfish that was caught with seven ducks in its belly! We passed the news along to a fisherman friend of ours on the Cape, who said, “A monkfish tried to eat my leg once. Did some good damage to my boots.” Turns out that monkfish will eat just about anything they can fit into their gigantic mouths, which may be why another common name for the fish is devilfish. Monkfish are anglers, which means they catch their prey using a lure called an esca that is attached to the top of the fish’s head. Anything that touches the esca triggers an automatic reflex of the monkfish’s jaw. Monkfish like their dinner to come to them, so they mostly spend their time buried into the sea floor or “walking” slowly along it on their sturdy pectoral fins.”     

I also learn from them that in the late 1990s, monkfish populations had become overfished. “This fact, combined with the fact that most monkfish are caught in trawls, which can harm the ocean floor, led to monkfish being an unsustainable choice.” However, today, “monkfish populations exceed target levels, and both trawl and gill net fishermen employ quite a few mechanisms to reduce bycatch.”  

My particular monkfish was gill netted off Montauk on the F/V Sea Devil—pretty funny, considering the fish’s nickname—“by a fisherman who refers to himself as Billy the Kid. Known to others simply as ‘the kid.’ (We are not making this up, Mark and Bianca write, “pinky swear.”)  

Monkfish may be one of the ugliest fish in the sea, but its taste redeems it: fresh, slightly sweet, with a firm texture, it’s been called “poor man’s lobster.” And it’s full of goodness: niacin, vitamins B6 and B12, potassium, as well as being very good source of selenium. It has a gray membrane surrounding the flesh, which your fishmonger can remove, or you can do it yourself (with the help of this video—start at minute 3:10).  

How to Cook It? Knowing that Mediterranean cuisines like to use monkfish, I start browsing my cookbooks and the web, looking for recipes. I find monkfish couscous, roasted monkfish with tomatoes and olives, Andalusian monkfish ragout. Jamie Oliver has what looks like a delicious grilled or roasted monkfish with black olive sauce and lemon mash, just the kind of full-of-Mediterranean-flavors dish I like. Sara Jenkins’s Olives and Oranges, includes a monkfish dish with her wintertime take on Sicilian caponata, made from olives, potatoes and sun-dried tomatoes. I made this the last time we had monkfish, and I’d be happy to eat it again, but I’m in the mood to be adventurous. Mark Usewicz, the chef behind Mermaid’s Garden (Bianca’s a marine biologist) has posted a couple of delicious sounding recipes on Mermaid’s Garden’s Facebook page: Mark’s Monkfish with Clams and Cranberry Beans and Mark’s Fish in Mustard Curry. (I noticed this week that Dave Pasternack’s Il Pesce, Eataly’s fish restaurant, has a monkfish/clam combo on its menu right now, too: Crispy Monkfish Cheeks with Local Clams, Steamers and Meyer Lemon Aioli. The cheeks are quite small and a prized delicacy, I hear.)  

To tell you the truth, these dishes all sound good, making it hard to choose. In the end, though, to take advantage of how super, super fresh I know this fish will be, I decide on Monkfish “Carpaccio,” from Patricia Wells At Home in Provence. The recipe is beyond simple: thinly sliced monkfish, which is then grilled for less than a minute, with only olive oil, lemon juice, chives and sea salt added. I like the idea of the sweet flesh of the fish taking center stage. To accompany it, I’ll make a simple green salad, and I have the perfect bottle of Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, from Domaine de la Pinardière, chilling in the fridge. Crisp, clean tastes all around.

Recipe Love

 
LISTENING TO STANLEY TUCCI and his mother talk about recipes the other night made me think about all the little culinary treasures my mother has passed on to me. Not just basic cooking techniques that I learned at her elbow, but recipes from her mother, her mother’s mother, her father, her mother-in-law, a childhood schoolmate of my father’s, their friends in London in the late 1940s. She has been the keeper of these recipes and now is making sure her children have them, too.
 
There’s Friar’s Omelette, from Susanna Moss, my mother’s grandmother, written out in her own hand, my Polish Babcia Władysława’s pickled herring and babka (two separate dishes!), my dad’s traditional Christmas beetroot brine and soup, shortbread from Grandma Lily, brown bread from Grandad Percy (he was a miller and expert baker). Not to forget Marysia’s almond torte and Zosia’s pickled dill cucumbers. I’ve collected some on my own visits to family, too: Uncle Abdul Beidas’s hummus, Aunt Ela Makowiecka’s gazpacho (despite the Slavic name, she lived a good part of her life in Spain).
 
Recently this loving passing around of recipes took a different turn when my 20-something son Christopher flipped the tables and taught me how to make an elegantly plated beet, arugula, frisée and goat cheese salad that he’d learned somewhere along the line living in an Italian (Canadian) household for the last two years and working at an Italian café. Lucky me, and now lucky you because it’s the perfect Meatless Monday dish to share. Slicing the beets very thin is not only beautiful but somehow highlights their delicate sweet flavor. From my family to yours. 
 
 

RECIPE: Beet and Goat Cheese Salad, with Arugula and Frisée

 
AT OUR HOUSE, WE CALL THIS DISH Christopher’s Beet Salad, because of how the recipe came to us. Golden beets work really beautifully, too, says Chris.
 
Serves 4
 
5 medium beets
wild arugula and frisée greens
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
2 tbs balsamic vinegar
salt, pepper
4 oz goat cheese
 
Scrub the beets and boil whole until tender (45 minutes to an hour). Remove from water and let cool.
 
In a small bowl, whisk together olive oil and vinegar, adding salt and pepper to taste. 
 
Combine about four handfuls of wild arugula and frisée in another bowl, dress with the vinaigrette and toss gently.
 
When the beets are cool, peel and, using a mandoline, slice them into thin rounds. Arrange in circles in one layer on four salad plates.
 
Drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil over the beets. 
 
In the center of each plate, pile a small handful of the arugula/frisée mix.
 
Top with a slice of goat cheese (browned under the grill if you like).
Serve with crusty bread.  
 

Mediterranean Diet Suggested in Stroke Prevention Therapy

 
ANOTHER SHOUT-OUT FOR THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET from the medical world. In a Jane Brody column today in the New York Times, Dr. David Spence, a stroke prevention specialist at the University of Western Ontario who advocates intensive medical therapy (as opposed to surgery) for stroke prevention in asymptomatic patients, comments:

“Americans tend to name their meals by the meat. ‘Tonight we’re having steak, or chicken or fish,’ ” he said. “I recommend that my patients go vegetarian every other day, and when they eat meat, chicken or fish on the days in between, the portion should be the size of the palm of their hand.” Along with appropriate medications and control of blood sugars in diabetics, Spence “is a strong advocate of a traditional Mediterranean diet, high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lentils and beans, olive oil and canola oil and low in cholesterol and animal fats,” Brody writes.  

 

Cooking with Stanley Tucci

 
STANLEY TUCCI WAS AT THE NEIGHBORHOOD BARNES & NOBLE on Friday to promote The Tucci Cookbookand it was more than a little fun. He brought along his mother Joan Tropiano Tucci and his father Stanley Tucci Sr. “the real authors of the book—I’m the fake author” and his wife, literary agent Felicity Blunt (sister of Emily) and his pet dog. Well, no dog actually, or kids, for that matter, but you get the picture. It was very homey, just like I imagine his family’s kitchen has always been. “Cooking is about doing it together, seeing the creative act, that’s what’s binding,” he told us, and you can imagine the fun he and his parents and children all have cooking together. “Then you sit down at the table and see what you’ve produced,” Joan says. “It’s exciting.”
 
 
In a foreword, Mario Batali writes that “Stanley has written a love letter to his mum and dad, to his distant roots in Calabria.” Tucci tells his Barnes & Noble audience, “My mother is an incredible cook,” calling her up to join him at the microphone, “and she learned to cook from her mother.” The book goes into some family history (both sides are Calabrese), with sections written by his mother and father. His father apparently would pause at some point during dinner and always ask, “How does the rest of the world eat?”
 
Tucci and his parents share family recipes that were the inspiration for Big Night, as well as those of Gianni Scappin, of Le Madri, with whom he collaborated on the movie. Tucci has cooked more than once on screen. Did he have any tips for Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia, in which he plays Paul Child? someone asks now. Well, just acting tips. Big laugh. “Seriously, though, Meryl is a great cook, but at one point, she was stirring manicotti and I just couldn’t take it any more. I had to demonstrate how it was done. She said, great, sure….but I have no idea whether she changed anything.”
 
Tucci first started cooking when he was around 12 years old, his mother says. “It was a lasagna bolognese with bechamel.” They all seem to like Stan Sr.’s peaches in red wine. Why not? Sounds like the perfect dessert to me. Tucci shops at Stop & Shop, Joan at Shoprite. She likes to search out Italian products, and has tried a lot of different canned San Marzano tomatoes before settling on, damn, I didn’t quite catch the name. Barilla pasta, or De Cecco are great, “not too starchy,” says Joan.  “And forget the light olive oil; it’s terrible.” When Stanley was growing up, Joan mostly used Filippo Berio extra-virgin olive oil. Tucci uses Frantoia from Sicily.  Now they’re really dishing!

I haven’t had a chance to try any of the recipes yet. I’ll report back when I have. I doubt if timpano (made famous in Big Night) will be the first one I try, although it truly sounds magnifico. Tucci and his family cook it every Christmas. “My most memorable food moment,” says Tucci. 

RECIPE: Beans and Red, Yellow and Orange Peppers Salad

 
SOMETIMES A FARMERS’ MARKET STAND JUST LEAPS UP AT YOU and says, “Make this dish!” At this time of year, that dish often involves peppers. Piled up in gorgeous multicolored heaps, who can resist?
 
 
For this recipe, I add chopped up peppers to a few staples from the cupboard—canned cannellini and garbanzo beans, which I stock up on at Whole Foods, plus extra-virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar—and a generous handful of mint. It makes a fall meal full of wake-you-up tastes and crunch. If you like, you can top it off with crumbled feta or goat cheese—adding a salty zest and some extra protein.
 
 
Oh, and a loaf of crusty bread and a bottle of crisp Albariño from Spain are always welcome accompaniments.
 
Generously serves 4 as a main dish
 
1 red pepper
1 orange pepper
1 yellow pepper
1 15-oz. can cannellini beans
1 15-oz. can chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
½ small red onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tbs. red wine vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
A good handful (½ cup or more) fresh mint leaves, cut into thin strips (chiffonade) or left whole if very young and tender
Fresh feta or goat cheese (optional), for topping
 
Core, seed and dice the peppers into ¼-inch pieces and place in a serving bowl big enough to fit all ingredients. Drain and rinse the beans. Zap them for 20 seconds or so in the microwave, ’til just warm, and set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar and garlic, and pour over the beans. Let sit for 10 or 15 minutes. Add beans, onion and mint to the peppers, and gently mix. Season with sea salt and pepper, to taste.