One of the culinary drawbacks of living in south-western Germany is the distance to the next best coastline. Whenever I’m struck by the mood for a nice, fresh piece of saltwater fish, I need to mentally prepare myself for ridiculous amounts of quid crossing the counter. Amounts that, most of the time, keep me from dishing up more fish. One of my absolute favorites is Monkfish, or as we more accurately call it over here: Sea Devil.
The first time I saw one of those, freshly pulled out of the water, my fight-or-flight reflexes immediately turned into an eat-it-before-it-eats-you reflex. Luckily it turned out to be absolutely delicious, way more gratifying than the sea urchin I ate minutes before the encounter in an attempt at revenge for the painful childhood memories of urchin pins stuck in my feet… Yay for primal instincts coming to life when being confronted with your food! For those of you not in the know – the monkfish/sea devil is an anglerfish, seemingly comprised of 90% teeth and a bioluminescent lantern dangling off of a large spike on it’s back to lure in its unsuspecting prey. A thing of overdramatized deep-sea documentaries and horror movies. Kind of. More improtantly, it’s a culinary dream come true if it’s prepared and paired well. Lucky for me, hubby, who’s rather partial to the consistency of all swims-when-alive things, likes sea devil as well thanks to it’s firmer, meatier texture, so on rare occasions I ignore the guilty pangs concerning the price and do my best to make the fish shine. This time I decided to cook up a surf-and-turf style starter.
450g Black Salsify Roots, fresh or frozen – see below
400ml Chicken Stock
100g light Cooking Cream – or full fat cream, up to you
1 Tbsp Butter
Opt: 15g browned Butter, as finishing touch
1-2 Pinches of dried Chilli flakes
Freshly grated Nutmeg
1) Add the stock to a large pot set on medium-low to medium heat. This soup is not supposed to boil, you might need to turn the heat down or take the pot off the stove for a bit in case things get too bubbly inside.
2) If you’re using fresh roots:
– Wear CSI gloves. I mean it, go buy some if you don’t have those or any kind of rubber gloves around. These roots are one step ahead of beets when it comes to dyeing anything in their general vicinity within seconds and the unsightly dirty brown-black result of that is one serious piece of work to get off your skin.
– Scrub the roots under running water, peel them with a veggie peeler and slice them into 3-4cm long pieces.
– Sautée the pieces in about 2 tbsp of butter until they’re lightly browned to boost their flavor, then simmer them below the boiling point in the stock for about 10 mins until they’re al dente.
3) If you’re using frozen roots:
– Take them out of their packaging and place them in a sieve. Give them a quick rinse with cold water and place a bowl beneath the sieve. Store the bowl/sieve combo in a cool spot for 2-3 hours in order to let the roots thaw slowly.
– Once they’re (mostly) thawed, send them swimming in the stock and let them simmer below boiling point for 10-15 mins until they’re al dente – not stringy anymore but not soft or squishy either. Most veggies loose a lot of flavor when they’re exposed to high temperatures for too long, so for a veggie-based soup it’s best to cut the veg into smaller bits to reduce the cooking time. If you don’t have much experience with veggie/creamy soups you might think cranking up the heat could take care of the time issue. I know I made that mistake with my first – an asparagus cream soup – and wondered why it tasted of … nothing whatsoever. Like most nutrients and vitamins, flavors basically die in high temperature sourrounds. The wonderful steam coming out of your pot? That’s actually a chunk of your soup’s flavors literally disappearing into thin air. That’s also why one of the kitchen tools that really creep me out, the good old pressure cooker, never went out of style.
4) Here’s where the frozen and fresh root paths meet again. Remove ¼ of the roots from the stock and keep them warm.
5) Add cream and butter to the stock and the remaining roots in the pot and take it off the heat.
6) Either move the soup to a blender or use a stick blender to blitz the soup until it’s smooth and creamy. Stop every couple of turns to check the soup for its consistency to avoid overblending it and thereby diluting it too much. If you’re using a blender make sure to let the soup sit in the jug for a couple of minutes to cool down a bit. Otherwise the hot liquid will make the air pressure inside the jug rise rapidly once you close the lid, making one of those splattered-kitchen kodak-moments come to life. While you will probably laugh about it in a couple of years, piping hot liquids being sprayed across a room with a person in it is obviously dangerous business.
7) Since the salsify, like any other root vegetable, leaves behind a slightly grainy texture after whizzing them, strain the soup through a fine sieve in case you plan on frothing it up later, or if you want it really silky. If you don’t mind a bit of bite to the soup (aka…if you’re in a lazy mood…), just leave it as it is.
8) Move the soup back into the pot to heat it through on low-medium heat, it should thicken up nicely now. If it doesn’t, dissolve about 1 tsp of cornstarch in ½ tbsp of cold water, stir it into the soup and warm it through. You will most likely need to adjust your seasoning after this though, the starch swallows up a lot of flavors.
If you think your soup turned out too thick, just stir in a little bit more stock – a spoonful at a time.
9) Have a taste and season it with nutmeg, salt and chilli, taste again and adjust if necessary.
10) Stir in the brown butter, if you’re using it, just before serving.
11) While the soup is heating through, get busy with the fish.
1 Monkfish Fillet, skinned, around 120-150g, cut in 2 similar sized pieces
1 Tbsp Butter
Fleur de Sel
dried Chilli flakes
1) This is as fuss-free as it gets, I think… Melt the butter in a small pan set on on low-medium heat.
2) Lightly salt the fish and gently set it into the pan, former skinside facing down.
3) While the pan is taking care of everything else, baste the surface with the butter in the pan from time to time.
4) The whole process shouldn’t take more than 5 mins, about 3-4 min on the skinside and 1-2 on the top, depending on the thickness of your fillets. The deed is done once the fish is soft, fluffy and springy to the touch
5) If you encounter unexplained white, foamy stuff floating around in your pan, turn down the heat and check if it’s done already. It’s denaturated protein being squeezed out of the fillets due to the core-temperature getting too high, so either the pan is getting too hot or the fish is done.
6) Season the fillets with salt and chilli flakes after brushing them with a last dab of butter – for these pictures I brushed it with a wonderful red szechuan pepper oil instead of using dried chilli flakes, which worked out wonderfully.
7) If you’re using an oven, butter a tray, butter the fish and low-and-slow the beast for 10-12 mins at 80°C.
Finishing the dish
1 Handful of Lamb’s Lettuce
2-3 Lovage Leaves
1) Finely slice half of the lettuce leaves.
2) Slice the lovage leaves into ribbons the same size as the lettuce leaves. 2 or 3 leaves might not seem a lot, but lovage packs one hell of a punch in the flavor department. A little goes a very long way, especially in a soup like this, but a little too much can be terribly overpowering. If you’ve never used lovage before, slice up 4 leaves, use 2 of them in the soup and have the other 2 nearby for everyone to add to their bowls individually. The earthy salsify needs something leafy to lighten it up, so if you can’t get your hands on fresh lovage, you could try garden sorrel or flatleaf parsley or a mix of the two.
3) Use the roots you set aside to stack up little pyres in your soup bowls.
4) Place the fillets on top of them and carefully pour in the soup around the edges of the bowl to avoid knocking over the stacks.
5) Sprinkle the chopped leaves around the islands and use the remaining lamb’s lettuce bouquets to decorate the bowls.