By Doreen Leggett
Thank you, Julia Child.
When John Our first started fishing with his dad Jack, they used to throw monkfish overboard. Then, in the 1980s, Julia Child started cooking so-called poor man’s lobster and sales took off.
“She made monkfish very popular, and it really helped the fleet,” said Our.
Our was reminiscing about his time catching the squat-headed, toad-colored but delectable fish at Meet the Fleet, where chef Tyler Hadfield of The Rail restaurant was following in the footsteps of “The French Chef.”
Hadfield was being captured on the small screen by Big Tree Productions and his culinary lesson will be available for wider viewing.
That evening, about 20 people logged onto Zoom in their kitchens to cook Monkfish Picatta.
Along with Hadfield taking attendees step-by-step through the scrumptious recipe, Our told the audience about catching the big-headed fish and Melissa Sanderson, chief operating officer at the Fishermen’s Alliance, acted as emcee.
Fins allow the fish to almost walk, and it hides in sandy or muddy ocean floor so it can jump out and attack prey with its big toothy mouth, Sanderson said.
When they swim it’s like they are wagging their tails, she added.
Fishermen have been on the receiving end of those jaws.
“They shred your fingers. I have had them clamp down on my hand and it wasn’t pretty,” Our said. Fishermen give the fish a whack on the head with a mallet to knock them out.
Monkfish are typically caught in gillnets, said Our, and this time of year fishermen will go about 100 miles to southern New England to get them. Because they are targeting big fish, around 10 pounds, the mesh size of the net is big – meaning most other fish swim through.
The biggest monkfish Our ever saw was a 72-pounder caught by Matt Linnell.
“It looked prehistoric,” he said.
Linnell’s nephew Sam is still going for monkfish, but there are less boats than there used to be. Some of it has to do with the rough trip and the age of some of the captains.
“I’m getting older, and you can’t really sleep,” Our said.
When Our went regularly, the Japanese market was stronger. Our said that in Asia, they not only use the liver for pate, which Our has tried, they also drink the fish’s oil like doing a shot of alcohol – which Our said he has not tried.
Back then they were getting $2.40 for the whole fish. It dropped by about a dollar, but Our said the fishermen from the Cape who make the trip are still doing well.
The stock is in great shape.
The bad news, said Sanderson, is the quota has been cut by managers because fishermen landings are used to help set how many can be caught. The number is based on the last three years, and fewer fishermen landed monkfish during the pandemic because demand shrank.
“So COVID artificially deflated the amount of fish (regulators) think are in the ocean,” said Sanderson.
John Pappalardo, chief executive officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance who sits on the New England Fishery Management Council, was able to ease the cuts by convincing fellow council members to spread them out over time. Sanderson said the hope is that managers will change their models in the interim.
The fishery is also one of the few that is part of an RSA, or Research Set Aside program, similar to scallops. That means fishermen get to catch more fish and that money is used to fund research to improve management.
Hadfield showed the audience how to debone the fish, even though the fish audience members had picked up earlier from the Fishermen’s Alliance office, along with other cooking supplies such as capers and shallots, had the bone removed for ease of preparation.
Hadfield walked everyone through taking the silver skin off the monkfish, also called goosefish or angler fish, cutting it into medallions, drenching it in flour and adding it to a piping hot pan.
Hadfield said the bone could be used as fish stock.
Captain Greg Connors, on the board of the Fishermen’s Alliance, was planning to stop by but the weather changed his plans; instead he went fishing for monkfish.
In the winter, good weather windows are hard to come by. Our said four boats left from Saquatucket Harbor in Harwich at 4 pm Tuesday night, reached the grounds at 4 am Wednesday morning to start fishing, returning Thursday.
Monkfish are usually at 400 or 700 feet deep this time of year, but Our has known them to hang out at the surface too. They will eat birds, which fishermen find in the fish’s belly.
“It’s the craziest damn thing you have ever seen,” he said with a laugh.
Hadfield’s monkfish and pasta came out wonderfully and those at home were eager to hold their tasty creations up to the camera.
“Beautiful! Lovely!” exclaimed Deb Watson.
Since a grant to introduce more people to local seafood allows for more filmed virtual cooking classes, Hadfield was asked what he may want to cook next. At least one audience member was ready.
“Anything that comes out of Tyler’s kitchen I am interested,” said Brian Miner.
Julia Child, thanks again.
Meet the Fleet is supported in part by a NOAA Fisheries’ Saltonstall Kennedy Grant (# NA22NMF4270126). NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, ocean, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources.