I grew up in a time and a place where the possibility of experiencing exotic or umami infused cuisine was just about zero. The little town in Illinois I come from had 500 residents, a couple of coffee shops, one family restaurant specializing in deep fried food, and was more than an hour from the closest big city. But when I still a little kid, I began to realize with a kind of amused bewilderment, that other people didn’t seem to be tasting food quite the way that I was.
The first time I had lobster at a restaurant in the big city, I was about ten years old and from the first bite, my mind was blown. Sweet and delicious, tasting like the ocean I had never seen or smelled, and dipped in savory butter, I looked around at my family in wonderment… only to realize that they were nodding and saying things like “that’s pretty good”. For me, the Earth moved. The sky opened up. So I set out to find more lobster, only to discover that Maine lobster was very expensive and completely unavailable to a poor family in a small town in Illinois.
I was the youngest kid in a family of six, with no resources to speak of, but I was determined. I realize now that that was the beginning of my journey toward my own wild savory kitchen. One day I overheard my Mother telling a neighbor that there was something called “poor man’s lobster”. I was all ears, and finally she said the magical word… Monkfish. The encyclopedia pictured an ugly little fish that looked more like an eel, and it was a table fish that no one really wanted very much. But it turned out that even at the tiny family owned grocery store nearby, in the frozen food section, was a small box of frozen Monkfish. It looked like it had been there for years. But it cost almost four dollars, much more than I had in the whole world. So for weeks I did extra chores and odd jobs to make money. I hauled half a ton of coal in big buckets to our basement furnace… and I obliterated hundreds of ever blooming dandelions that my Dad was at war with. Finally I had enough to buy my own Monkfish. It was all mine. I boiled it myself, taking care to not over cook it, per my Mom’s advice and under her watchful eye, and then I sat down alone, with my own melted butter, and I ate all the Monkfish for lunch. My Mother was grinning from ear to ear. Sure enough, it tasted like lobster. I was in heaven.
This feast, Monkfish and Clams with Spanish Chorizo and Saffron, remains one of my absolute favorite dishes. It is an umami bomb, combining many of my favorite things to eat. To this day, when our local Whole Foods brings in Monkfish, I buy literally all of it and freeze it for future feasts. I dedicate this recipe to my Mom, who set me on the righteous path of a life long search for the “poor man’s lobster”.
1 pound monkfish fillets
2 pounds clams (we use Quahog Littleneck clams)
1/4 pound Spanish chorizo, cut into 1/4 inch thick coins (available on Amazon)
6 small red potatoes, cut into quarters
2 medium sized leeks, with the white portion cut into 1/4 inch thick coins
1 medium fennel bulb, cut in half, core removed, thinly sliced
1 cup fresh tomatoes, cut into chunks or 6 plum tomatoes, crushed by hand (we use San Marzano tomatoes from a 28 oz can, usually Italbrand)
1/2 cup already reduced clam broth
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup shallots, thinly sliced or finely chopped
6 tablespoons olive oil, 3 to fry the fish, 3 to saute the vegetables (we use first press virgin oil from Spain or Italy for this feast, look for the D.O.P. symbols of authenticity on the bottle or can)
5 garlic cloves, sliced not crushed
2 to 3 teaspoons lemon zest (lemon zest adds a wonderful umami sweetness, and it marries together all the Mediterranean flavors)
1/2 cup basil leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 cup Italian parsley, roughly chopped
1 1/2 teaspoon salt (1/2 teaspoon for the monkfish filets, 1/2 teaspoon for the water used to boil the potatoes, 1/2 teaspoon for the sauted fennel and leeks)
1 large pinch of Spanish saffron, gently heated in a small dry pan until aromatic, cooled, crushed (optional but wonderful)
1/2 cup ailoi (recipe below) to spread onto crusty bread
Note: If you are unable to use Spanish chorizo and are using another kind of sausage, add 1/2 teaspoon hot smoked Spanish paprika and 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes just before you add the clams.
Simmer the potatoes in salted water until your fork just passes through, 5 to 7 minutes. Set aside and allow to cool.
In a 12 inch skillet (cast iron is best), add 3 tablespoons of olive oil and, using medium heat, gently fry one side of the Spanish chorizo until it release some of its fats. When they just begin to curl, and have infused the olive oil with their reddish color and umami flavor, about 2 minutes, remove from the heat and set aside.
Salt and pepper the monkfish filets and in the same skillet, on medium to high heat, saute the filets until both sides are slightly golden on the outside, about 5 minutes, and set aside. Once cool, cut the filets into 1 inch chunks.
In the same skillet, add the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Once hot and just beginning to shimmer, saute the fennel, leeks and shallots, stirring often, until the leeks have fallen apart and softened, and the fennel is slightly browned, about 6 minutes. Now add the garlic and salt, saute until the garlic is aromatic, about 2 minutes.
Add to the skillet the clams, clam broth, wine, zest, saffron, tomatoes and red pepper flakes.
Cover and simmer on medium heat until the clams are all opened, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the clams, cover and set aside.
Add to the skillet the monkfish, chorizo, and potatoes. Simmer, also covered, until the monkfish is fully cooked, about 5 minutes. Place everything in the skillet into a large bowl, mixing in the parsley and basil, and then add back the clams on top to serve.
Slather the aioli onto toasted crusty bread and enjoy an umami bomb feast, inspired by Bouillabaisse from the south of France.
2 large egg yolks
4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup extra virgin Italian olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, crushed
Note: Add dill if used for fish filets.
Crush garlic and add a good pinch of salt and set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together yolks, lemon juice and mustard. Using a pour spout, add a drizzle of the olive oil, a few drops at a time, whisking steadily until the oil forms an emulsion. Whisk in the garlic paste, and add salt and black pepper to taste.
Allow this aioli to cool in the refrigerator and the flavors will intensify and marry.