PORTLAND, Maine – With their beady eyes, huge mouths and jagged rows of razorlike teeth, monkfish resemble something straight out of a Stephen King novel.
These hideous, Gulf of Maine bottom-dwellers are voracious feeders eating about anything that swims in front of them – even each other. Monkfish are so ugly, they make the humble, spotty-and-bewhiskered codfish seem handsome by comparison.
But they sure are tasty, according to the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.
Monkfish are plentiful in Maine waters but not well known to Mainers. Much of the local catch gets exported to Europe where it’s subject to large price swings, based on fluctuating demand. A bigger local market for the fish would help stabilize the price for Maine fishermen, helping them run their businesses more efficiently.
That’s why the Fishermen’s Association is launching a new, frozen, heat-and-serve monkfish stew this week. It’s the association’s first foray into the value-added food business. The nonprofit hopes the stew will help jumpstart local awareness, as well as demand, for the ugly-yet-edible monkfish.
“It’s a species that’s abundant in the Gulf of Maine,” said Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Ben Martens, “and we have several fishermen who are trying to build their businesses on it.”
A few local food stores, including Fork Food Lab and Free Range Seafood in Portland, will soon have the 16-ounce frozen monkfish stew in stock, Martens said. His organization is also hosting a pop-up shop and free tasting at their Brunswick headquarters on Dec. 23.
Martens describes the Fishermen’s Association stew, which was created with the help of Hurricane’s Premium Soups and Chowders in Greene, as cream-based with potatoes, veggies and a hint of cayenne pepper.
“Just enough to tickle your tastebuds,” he said.
Martens said the Fishermen’s Association has no intention of getting too deep in the food business but is willing to try anything to help support fishermen.
“Right now, this is just an experiment,” he said “but we’d love it if Hannaford got interested.”
The idea for the stew came about 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 donated funds to buy fish – including monkfish – from fishermen at the dock. It then donated the lean, healthy protein to local food banks.
The scheme helped food pantries stay stocked and fishermen stay in business.
But the association heard from many fish recipients that the monkfish was a mystery to them. They’d never heard of it and had no idea how to cook it. While helping educate people about how to cook it, the stew idea was born.
Nick Alfiero of Harbor Fish Market on Portland’s Customs House Wharf said he’s been educating the public about local seafood, like monkfish, since he opened the business with his father and two brothers in 1968.
“Back then, all anybody bought was haddock, scallops, lobster and crabmeat,” Alfiero said. “We pioneered mussels in Maine and we’re always trying to get people to try new things they’re unfamiliar with – like monkfish.”
Alfiero said the fish is not a direct replacement for whitefish like haddock and cod.
“It’s not a flaky fish,” Alfiero said. “It’s firm, like scallops or lobster. It’s good in soups, or grilled, and it holds up well to braising.”
You can even cook it on a skewer and Alfiero said its flavor is mild, a blank canvas taking on almost any seasoning you throw at it.
Afiero said 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, to Maine.
That far-off demand causes prices to jump here.
Currently, at Harbor Fish Market, monkfish fillets, which come from the tail, are going for $20 per pound.
Eben Nieuwkerk fishes for monkfish once a week, all year round, out of Kennebunkport. Nieuwkerk can easily meet current local market demands, catching over 2,000 pounds in his gillnets on a single trip.
“I try and spread it around so I don’t block up the market,” he said.
A good dock price for monkfish tails is close to $2 per pound but Nieuwkerk has had to sell it at half that price before. It’s hard, running a business, he said, not knowing how much your fish is worth until you’ve already spent time and money catching it.
“Knowing what I can make 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 a bigger local demand for monkfish, which aren’t subject to fishing quotas like haddock and cod. But he’s also realistic and can’t imagine it ever overtaking more traditional New England whitefish.
“Probably not,” Alfiero said. “In Maine, haddock rules.”
The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association pop-up shop will be open from 12 p.m. until 5 p.m. on Dec. 23 at its headquarters, located at 93 Pleasant St. in Brunswick.