Maine fishermen want you to eat more monkfish, even if the fish are hideous

PORTLAND, Maine – With their bright eyes, huge mouths, and rows of razor-jagged teeth, monkfish looks like something straight out of a Stephen King novel.

These hideous inhabitants of the far end of the Gulf of Maine feed voraciously on anything that swims in front of them, even each other. Monkfish are so ugly that they make the cod humble, spotted and mustache, beautiful in comparison.

But they’re definitely tasty, according to the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

Monkfish are abundant in Maine waters but not well known to Mainers. Much of the local catch is exported to Europe where it is subject to large price fluctuations, depending on fluctuating demand. A larger local market for fish would help stabilize the price for Maine fishermen, helping them run their businesses more efficiently.

This is why the Fishermen’s Association is launching a new frozen monkfish stew next week to reheat and serve. This is the association’s first foray into the value-added food sector. The association hopes the stew will help revive local awareness, as well as demand, for ugly but edible monkfish.

Nick Alfiero of Harbor Fish Market in Portland is holding a platter of monkfish tails for sale in his shop on Friday, December 17, 2021. Alfiero said the fish are not well known to the Mainers but are excellent in stews and looks like scallops or lobster in consistency. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“This is an abundant species in the Gulf of Maine,” said Ben Martens, executive director of the Fishermen’s Association, “and we have a number of fishermen who are trying to grow their business on it. “

A few local food stores, including Fork Food Lab and Free Range Seafood in Portland, will soon have the frozen 16-ounce monkfish stew in stock, Martens said. His organization is also organizing a pop-up shop and a free tasting at the Briunswick headquarters on December 23.

Martens describes the Fishermen’s Association Stew, which was created with help from Hurricane’s Premium Soups and Chowders in Greene, as a cream made with potatoes, vegetables and a hint of cayenne pepper.

“Just enough to tickle your taste buds,” he said.

Martens said the Fishermen’s Association did not intend to get too deeply involved in the food business, but was ready to do anything to help support the fishermen.

“At the moment it’s just an experiment,” he said, “but we would love Hannaford to be interested.”

The idea for the stew originated last year when the Fishermen’s Association launched its Fishermen Feeding Mainers program in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the program, the association used the donated funds to buy fish – including monkfish – from fishermen at the wharf. He then donated the lean, healthy protein to local food banks.

The program has helped pantries to stay stocked and fishers to stay in business.

But the association has heard from many fish recipients that monkfish is a mystery to them. They had never heard of it and didn’t know how to cook it. While helping to educate people on how to cook it, the idea of ​​the stew was born.

Nick Alfiero of Harbor Fish Market on Portland’s Customs House Wharf said he has been educating the public about local seafood, like monkfish, since he started the business with his father and two brothers in 1968.

“Back then, all everyone bought was haddock, scallops, lobster and crabmeat,” Alfiero said. “We pioneered mussels in Maine and always try to get people to try new things they don’t know, like monkfish. “

Eben Nieuwkerk sends a barrel full of fish out of the hold of his gillnet fishing boat Shannon Kristine at the Portland Fish Exchange on November 16, 2020. Nieuwkerk fishes for burbot year round in the Gulf of Maine. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Alfiero said the fish is not a direct substitute for whitefish like haddock and cod.

“It’s not a flaky fish,” Alfiero said. “It’s firm, like scallops or lobster. It is good in soups, or grilled, and it resists embers well.

You can even cook it on a skewer and Alfiero said it has a mild flavor, with a blank canvas taking almost any seasoning you throw at it.

Afiero said the local price fluctuations are due to a large market for monkfish in Europe, where it is a staple ingredient in French bouillabaisse stew. When Europeans can’t find monkfish locally, they look overseas, in Maine.

This distant demand is causing prices to jump here.

Currently, at Harbor Fish Market, monkfish fillets, which come from the tail, cost $ 20 a pound.

Eben Nieuwkerk fishes for monkfish once a week, year round, from Kennebunkport. Nieuwkerk can easily meet current local market demands, catching over 2,000 pounds in his gillnets in one trip.

“I’m trying to broadcast it so as not to block the market,” he said.

A good dock price for monkfish tails is close to $ 2 a pound, but Nieuwkerk must have sold it at half that price before. It’s hard to run a business, he says, not to know how much your fish is worth until you’ve already spent the time and money catching it.

“Knowing what I can do before I untie the boat is what matters,” he said.

Nieuwkerk’s favorite way to eat monkfish is simply fried in a pan with butter.

Alfiero said he welcomes increased local demand for monkfish, which is not subject to fishing quotas like haddock and cod. But it’s also down to earth and can’t imagine it ever surpassing the more traditional New England whitefish.

“Probably not,” Alfiero said. “In Maine, haddock rules.”

The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association pop-up store will be open from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. on December 23 at its head office, located at 93 Pleasant Street in Brunswick.

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