If you’ve never eaten monkfish, you must give it a try. Also known as “poor man’s lobster,” the texture of monkfish, which is white when cooked, is surprisingly like lobster–succulent but sturdy with a very mild flavor. In fact, as I write, I am thinking to myself, maybe next time I buy monkfish, I’ll just grill it and serve it with lemon-butter. But this posting wants to celebrate monkfish cooked Provencal style, like we recently enjoyed it on our summer holiday in Provence.
I remember the day as if it was yesterday. We had ventured all the way down to Cassis from our little chateau just northeast of Avignon–a nearly 3-hour drive. Seeing Cassis meant a lot to me since the last time I had tried to drive there from Provence–with my sister in 2001, my car broke down less than 30 kilometers from the picturesque town. After getting the car towed and negotiating with the mother of the auto mechanic in my very limited French, the chance to see Cassis had vanished.
All these years later, determined as ever to see the famous Les Calanques (fingers of limestone cliffs separated by inlets of turquoise waters), my husband and I strapped the kids in the backseat and set off. The drive takes several hours, and we were famished by the time we arrived in Cassis. We managed to park the car–a remarkable feat in nearly all small, picturesque French towns in Provence and along the Cote d’Azur, and walked into the center. The kids were already showing signs of starvation and sightseeing fatigue, so we sat down to eat outside a little cafe in a narrow walking street. There we devoured a tasty dish of sweet mullet served in a Provencal sauce (and where we saw those little enameled cast-iron tureens we became obsessed with upon our return home, see Dreaming of Provence). I wish I could replicate that dish, but alas, we seem unable to find mullet in Northern California.
You might be wondering, but where does the monkfish make its appearance? After taking a too-short, but still worthwhile boat tour of the spectacular Calanques, we piled back in the car, hoping to return to the chateaux before dark. Because we’d had a late start, the sun was already setting by the time we got back on the overpriced but essential ribbon of asphalt called the Peage. Somewhere just outside St Remy de Provence, I insisted we pull over when I glimpsed a lantern-lit courtyard with dining tables. I knew the children were not in the mood to sit inside a cramped restaurant at this hour. We sat down to eat at the very modest restaurant of a small hotel. Unfortunately for my husband, they were not adept at cooking steak, but my monkfish Provencal was absolutely delicious. I savored every bite, and vowed I’d replicate the dish when we returned home.
This dish isn’t exactly the same, but I think it has less to do with differences in the ingredients or preparation and more to do with the fact it’s served at my dining table in Marin as opposed to a candlelit table surrounded by Italian cypress trees, with crushed rock underfoot in the heart of Provence.
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped fairly fine
1 large garlic clove, minced
Several sprigs of fresh thyme
6 tomatoes, sliced into eighths*
1 pinch saffron threads
1 splash Pernod
1 1/2 cup chicken broth
1 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp fresh-ground pepper
2 to 2.5 lbs fresh monkfish filets
4 tbsp seasoned breadcrumbs or almond flour
2 cups rice
*Technically, the tomatoes should be blanched, skinned and seeded, but I’m generally too lazy or too rushed to take the time to do this.
Prepare the rice per its instructions (generally 1 1/2 cups water to each cup of dry, uncooked rice brought to a boil and simmered, covered for 15-20 minutes).
While the rice is cooking, turn the oven on to 375F.
Heat the oil in a large cast-iron or other oven-proof skillet. Add the onions and cook until they begin to turn translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme and cook another 2-3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, saffron and Pernod and cook another 3 minutes. Pour in the chicken stock, add the salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until a some of the liquid has evaporated.
Spoon 1/4 of the tomato mixture in each of four small enameled, cast-iron baking dishes if you have them or other small baking dishes. You can also use an 9-inch square baking dish. Place a monkfish filet on top of the sauce in each dish, and season with a little salt and pepper. Sprinkle each filet with 1 tbsp breadcrumbs or almond flour and cover each dish with a bit of foil. Cook in the middle of the oven for about 10 minutes or until the monkfish is nearly done. (I’ve found that monkfish filets vary greatly in thickness, so just check yours for doneness after 8 or so minutes.) Remove the bits of foil, turn the oven to broil and cook another 2-3 minutes or until the tomato mixture is bubbling and the breadcrumbs are golden brown. Remove from the oven and let sit another 2 minutes. Serve in the individual dishes, if using, with a large spoonful of rice alongside. If you don’t have the individual dishes, serve the fish with several spoonfuls of sauce over a serving of rice.
Play a little Francoise Hardy or Edith Piath on the stereo, and…