Olives are Nature has always had a nice understanding of the art of compensation. That means the girl who isn’t very pretty wins everyone’s admiration and attention with her delightful temperament and personality.
Or in the case of Barbra Streisand, who must be impossible to live with, Nature makes amends by giving her a powerful and unique singing voice that has made her into a worldwide star.
The same thing happens in the animal world, and especially in the sea where some of the most grotesque fish and shellfish are those that taste best.
That is the case with monkfish, known as rape (ra-pay) in Spanish, the ugliest fish you’ll see at local markets. The monkfish’s fugly looks come mainly from its enormous head and its huge gaping mouth. A specimen of three feet long can have a cavernous mouth that measures nine inches horizontally and eight inches vertically.
Because of its horrendous looks, the monkfish has been given all kinds of derogatory names. Its gigantic head and bulging Monty Feldman eyes have produced Spanish names that translate as toad, toadfish and marine frog. In Andalusia it is sometimes known as the rat of the sea.
The monkfish is also called the fox of the sea because of its sly way of preying on other fish. It is an expert in camouflage and when feeding it first settles on the seabed and makes itself comfortable…and invisible.
It then lives up to one of its other names: anglerfish. Its feeding method is unusual and highly efficient. Its first dorsal fin juts out over its nose and hangs above its mouth like a curved fishing rod complete with its own bait — a tiny coloured appendage that can move slowly.
Other fish see this swaying extremity, take it for something to eat, and go over to investigate. The monkfish, which is covered in seabed mud with only its eyes showing, lunges forward and gobbles up the fish in its immense mouth.
It has a voracious appetite and can gulp down big fish as well as the smaller ones. A Spanish fisherman once caught a monkfish of 26 inches in length with a codling 23 inches long in its stomach. Fishermen often find the contents of a monkfish’s stomach can weigh half as much as the fish itself.
If you go to the Mercat d’Olivar before 8am, you will see whole monkfish with the head intact and the fin that acts like a fishing rod with its little appendage that is the bait. You will also be very aware of the fish’s rows of needle-sharp teeth.
The monkfish, which is a white fish and can be bought all year round, was a favourite morsel in ancient Greece and Rome. But in later centuries it went out of fashion, perhaps because of its ugliness.
Until relatively recent times it was spurned by the average Spaniard, although not in Catalonia or Valencia where it has had a long history of acceptance: some of the best monkfish recipes in Spanish regional cooking are Catalán and Valencian.
Basque cooks, usually very quick at spotting culinary goodies, didn’t get the monkfish habit until the 1936 Civil War when Catalán refugees in San Sebastián pointed out its gastronomic attractions. Monkfish is now firmly entrenched in Spanish regional cooking and most areas have their specialities.
Cooks and diners like monkfish because it has no bones except for a thickish single cartilaginous spine that is easily removed with the tip of a sharp knife.
Cataláns excel in fish soups and stews in which monkfish is the main ingredient. One of their favourite dishes is simple but very effective: slices of monkfish cooked with potatoes in a highly fragrant fish stock with alioli stirred in just before it is served. Very Catalán, very Mediterranean.
Rape a la catalana recipe
An unusual monkfish recipe is rape a la catalana, which includes dark chocolate in the sauce. For a kilo of monkfish without the central bone you will need: 1 large onion very finely minced, 4 whole cloves of garlic, 60 grs dark chocolate, 1 tbsp red wine vinegar, 2 bay leaves, 12 tbsps of virgen extra olive oil, flour, some slices of bread and salt to taste.
Cut the skinless rape fillets into chunks, salt them to taste, coat them with flour and sauté them until golden in the 12 tablespoons of olive oil (about three minutes).
Arrange the pieces of fish in a single layer in a flat earthenware dish and sprinkle over the finely minced onion, the whole cloves of peeled garlic, the bay leaves and the grated chocolate, 10 tbsps of the oil used for sautéing the fish and a small glass of water.
Cover the dish with tinfoil and bake in a medium hot oven for 20-30 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. Transfer the fish to a serving dish and put the rest of the ingredients, minus the bay leaves, through a vegetable mill. Spoon this sauce over the fish and garnish with small slices of fried bread.
Stews featuring monkfish are popular everywhere and each area adds its own finishing touches. Dry sherry is added in Andalusia and in Asturias, famous for its cider apples, they include cider. Cantabrian monkfish dishes call for large gambas in their shells, juicy clams and sometimes pieces of asparagus, which also crop up in Navarra and the Basque Country.
The Basques, who invented the delicious salsa verde for merluza (a green sauce made with parsley), also do monkfish in his sauce.
The Basques have a magnificent variety of wild mushrooms in their woods and they are used to great effect in monkfish dishes. One of these wild funghi is a black variety known as hongo negro that makes a nice colour contrast with the slices of white monkfish.
Monkfish is popular in Mallorca and there is always plenty of it at the Mercat d’Olivar.
Prices go up and down depending on supply, but it is always one of the more expensive fish.
In island restaurants specialising in fresh fish, you will find monkfish grilled simply a la plancha or served with shellfish sauces. You will also come across it in stews, either on its own or combined with other fish and shellfish.
Fillets of monkfish cut into thinnish slices are excellent when breaded and deep-fried. Marinate the monkfish slices for an hour or more in virgen extra olive oil and a few drops of lemon juice (drops not squirts) and chopped fresh herbs of your choice.
Coat the slices with flour, dip them in beaten egg and finally in breadcrumbs. Deep-fry them until golden and serve them on a bed of shredded lettuce leaves. They are ideal with a glass of very cold dry sherry or a crisp verdejo from Rueda, also extremely cold.
A delightful summer dish is monkfish brochettes. Pieces of monkfish about the size of a walnut are first marinated overnight in virgen extra olive oil, ground rosemary and fresh rosemary needles.
Thread the pieces of fish on to small skewers, alternating with halves of bay leaves. Drizzle generously with virgen extra olive oil and grill them on an hot plate or in a heavy frying pan over a high heat. Serve on a bed of lamb’s lettuce (canónigos) or rocket (rúcula) or a herby long grain rice.