Marsala brings out the Beauty in Monkfish
The monkfish Marsala served at The Daily Catch is likely the most popular monkfish dish in the country. It should come as little surprise. The restaurant’s pan-seared monkfish tail medallions with mushrooms in sweet Marsala wine sauce has a luxurious taste and is easy to make.
"We sell about 5,000 orders a year and we've been serving it for well over 30 years,” says Basil Freddura, 33, head chef at his family's restaurant. "That's at least 150,000 orders of monkfish. Elsewhere, it's only been getting popular recently, so we have a head start on other restaurants.”
In fact, The Daily Catch has been serving the dish longer than that -- since the early 1970s, before taste for monkfish expanded beyond largely Italian and Portuguese kitchens. While the preferred choices at many seafood restaurants are scallops, shrimp and salmon, at The Daily Catch, monkfish Marsala is a favorite year-round. "We would have a hard time if we took it off the menu," says Basil.
At this year's Boston Seafood Show, Ted Brozanski was heard raving about the dish, which he had ordered the night before. Brozanski, president of Stokes Fish in Florida was standing beside his seafood display, which included moonfish and other niche-domestic species. “I had it with their squid ink pasta. It was a ten. It was the best meal I’ve had in my life,” he says.
“If the cook sees the order coming in with pasta, he’ll make it with extra sauce,” says Basil. For home cooks, he recommends adding a few drops of water from the pasta pot. Another recommend side is sautéed broccoli rabe. “You’re not otherwise getting your garlic fix.”
Its resemblance to chicken Marsala makes this recipe a good first monkfish dish to prepare. Monkfish tail, like lobster, is firm but tender, so beginner imprecision carries no penalty. Basil suggests first-timers have a fishmonger cut the tail – the only part normally eaten outside Asia -- into medallions and remove its surface membrane. (These are easy moves that you can do solo the next time.)
Monkfish is not one of our majestic-looking North Atlantic species. "All Mouth" is one of its nicknames. Goosefish is another. Fishermen often part with its large head at sea, says Basil, who purchases his supply directly off the Boston fish pier. That makes it one of the freshest fish he serves.
Julia Child, who frequented The Daily Catch, brought notice to monkfish in a 1979 episode. But a popular photo of her grappling with a huge specimen suggests she might not have helped attract a great many converts.
For Basil, monkfish is ideal for experimentation. “Its delicious tail meat doesn't readily flake. It can be roasted, braised or sautéed." A stuffed monkfish dish he prepares "takes on the flavor of an Italian braciole.”
Monkfish osso buco is an adaptation from another Italian classic, while his cousin Jesse McNally, who also cooks at The Daily Catch, came up with a monkfish saltimbocca.
Monkfish are local to the Northeast and not overfished. “The fishery has been quite stable over the last decade or so," says Dr. Anne Richards of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole. More interesting, she says, are the fish-hunting habits of monkfish themselves. They use a “modified dorsal fin ray resembling a fishing pole and lure.”
Richards confirms that monkfish can prey on small birds called dovekies, and the biggest could indeed snatch a goose.
After searing, sautéing and a quick flambé followed by a few pats of butter, some lemon juice and parsley, Basil’s monkfish Marsala comes into beautification. "It has a sheen to it," he says, as he slides it from sauté pan to plate.
Recipe: The Daily Catch’s Monkfish Marsala
Serves 2 or 3
This one skillet recipe has few ingredients but requires the cook’s attention. It has the richness of chicken Marsala with the lightness of a fish dish. If you intend to serve over pasta, you might stretch the sauce by adding (at the end) a few drops of water from the pasta pot.
1 pound monkfish, cleaned, trimmed and cut into ¼-inch thick medallions
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
1½ cups sweet Marsala wine
8 white button mushrooms, sliced ¼-inch thick
½ lemon, for squeezing
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon Italian parsley, chopped
1. Place large skillet over medium-high heat with oil.
2. Season monkfish with salt and pepper on both sides and dredge in flour. Shake off excess.
3. Sear in hot pan. Cook until browned, approximately 1-2 minutes. Once browned and caramelized, flip monkfish medallions.
4. Add mushrooms and cook for 1 minute more or until oil is soaked up and mushrooms show a little color.
5. Remove pan from heat and add Marsala wine. Return to heat. Ignite the wine and flambé until alcohol burns off.
6. Squeeze lemon juice into pan, being sure not to let seeds get into the sauce. Continue cooking on medium-high heat until wine has reduced.
7. Add butter, half of parsley, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low. Gently stir as butter melts into sauce. Once all butter has melted, turn off heat. Garnish with remaining parsley. Adapted from The Daily Catch