In July, I was fortunate enough to spend a week on Cape Cod, that hook-shaped peninsula on the east side of Massachusetts. I didn’t take it for granted and ate fresh seafood multiple times a day. Clams and mussels, scallops and oysters, cod and haddock, halibut and bluefish, crab and swordfish, lobster and monkfish. Of all of these, it’s these last two, lobster and monkfish, particularly their similarities (and differences), that led me to create “Mobster” Rolls and share my recipe here.
It was my first time having monkfish and maybe my 100th time having lobster. The lobster was expensive, the monkfish was relatively cheap. The lobster I purchased already prepared at a perfectly ramshackle joint on Wellfleet harbor. I ordered two small rolls, one prepared cold with mayo and celery, one hot with butter and lemon. Both were delicious, but especially the hot buttery one. They were also thirty-five dollars…a piece!
The monkfish I bought fresh the next day, in tailpieces from a seafood market, also in Wellfleet. I prepared them myself—seasoned with celery salt, garlic powder and cracked pepper, grilled over high heat, finished with butter and lemon. They, too, were delicious, and three pounds cost me only forty dollars and satisfied six adults.
What struck me most when eating the grilled monkfish was the similarity in texture to the lobster I’d had the previous day. Most fish flakes, some fish holds up a bit more (swordfish comes to mind), but I had never eaten a fish that had the bounce and tightness of lobster meat. (I have since read that some people note similarities in taste between lobster and monkfish as well. To that I say, Hmmm. I have had monkfish four times now and, well, it’s hard to say it tastes like lobster. It is definitely not fishy, and again, the texture is a dead-ringer for those high-class crustaceans, but the sweetness is just not there. Luckily, I found a remedy for that.)
Anyway, this all got me thinking. Could I replicate those hot, buttery lobster rolls but with a much less expensive protein? Turns out I could. And they were a roaring success.
Note: I have since learned that many before me have noticed the similarity, and you can go online and find more than a few “monkfish lobster roll” recipes. But all I’ve found thus far are for the cold, mayonnaise and chopped celery version. But, at the risk of sounding brash, these rolls blow those out of the harbor!
- 2 pounds monkfish any fishmonger can order it for you; the fresher the better
- 2 sticks salted butter
- 1 cup white sugar
- ¼ cup chopped tarragon with a bit extra for garnish
- 1 tablespoon champagne or white wine vinegar
- 4 hot dog buns preferably New England style split-tops
- 1 lemon
- Bring four cups of water and one cup of sugar to a boil. After trimming any skin and remaining membrane from the monkfish, cut the monkfish into large chunks and add to boiling water. Cook for about four minutes. You are just parcooking the monkfish here (getting it about 60% of the way done) and infusing it with a little sweetness.
- In a separate pan, take two sticks—yes, two sticks—of butter. You will not actually use all of it in the rolls, but you’ll want the milk solids from two sticks to really get that yummy, brown butter flavor you’re looking for. Melt, and then brown, butter over medium heat. This takes about four minutes or so. Pay close attention, and when the butter starts to smell nutty and get the slightest bit brown, remove from heat and separate the clarified butter (ghee) from the browned milk solids. You’ll need to skim the solids from the clarified butter.
- Add clarified butter to a clean frying pan on medium-high heat. Add in chopped tarragon. Add in the par-cooked monkfish chunks. Sauté for about four minutes, basting (or what the French call arroser) as it cooks. When cooked through, strain—keeping only the fish and tarragon—and add to browned milk solids. Add champagne vinegar. Fold until evenly coated. (Note: give one chunk a taste while no one’s looking; you won’t be disappointed.)
- To serve, overstuff buttered and toasted split-top hotdog rolls with about a cup of brown-butter monkfish chunks. Sprinkle with a dash of chopped tarragon and a squeeze from a quarter lemon. Serve family style with potato chips or oven fries. In my opinion, this is a perfect late fall dish, something to make you nostalgic for the cookouts and carefree nights of a summer already faded in the rearview. Enjoy!
Stephen David Caldes is a writer, home cook, and assistant professor in the Journalism and Public Relations Department at CSU, Chico. He has many hobbies, but eating with friends is his favorite.