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Monday 27 July 2009

Cotton’s Tastes of Cadiz: Poor Man’s Lobster - or Gato por Liebre

I first ate monkfish in Cadiz over twenty years ago, long before it was a desirable dish in fine restaurants. At the time, this was not a typically ‘gaditano’ dish - the cook was actually from Asturias. The Spanish name for monkfish is rape (pronounced ‘rappay’) but it was popularly known as Langosta de Pobre - Poor Man’s Lobster.

This put me in mind of the Spanish picaresque tradition prevalent during the Golden Age of Spanish literature (sixteenth and early seventeenth century). The protagonists of these stories - the most famous of which are probably El Lazarillo de Tormes (anonymous) and El Busc√≥n (Quevedo) - were from the lowest levels of a highly stratified and immobile society, and in order to survive or medrar (prosper), they had to resort to all kinds of ingenious subterfuge. An essential part of the education of the ‘picaro’ was to learn how to aparentar lo que no eres - in other words, to pass yourself off as something you are not, in order to gain access to people, places and possibilities otherwise barred to you.

A wealth of vocabulary and expressions remain in modern Spanish from this time - the verb aparentar with its connotations of pretending to be more than you are is frequently used. Another common expression - which I used in The Maze of Cadiz - is gato por liebre (literally, cat for hare) which originated in the tabernas serving up a dish of ‘hare which was actually cat. The expression now is commonly used to pass anything off as something else.

People no longer try to pass monkfish off as lobster - it is a recognized delicacy in its own right - and it is certainly not the food of the poor. This is how I first ate it in Spain, how I often cook it, and how Peter Cotton ate it in The Maze of Cadiz:

Monkfish with Mussels and Saffron


  • 1 kilo of monkfish tail cut into diagonal slices about an inch thick. Get your fishmonger to prepare this for you. When you are home, any grey membrane still covering the fish should be carefully removed before cooking.
  • 1/2 kilo mussels (or clams)
  • some good virgin olive oil
  • 1 large clove of garlic
  • 2 shallots/ a handful of spring onions (green stalks included)
  • A little chopped green pepper (a small slice)
  • A pinch of saffron (or turmeric if that is what you have at hand)
  • A little flour
  • some chopped flat leaf parsley
  • freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • Salt
  • freshly ground black pepper

  • Scrub and de-beard the mussels. (If using clams, simply wash in a few changes of water). Leave to soak for a while in cold water with a squeeze of lemon juice.
  • Lightly coat the monkfish in flour seasoned with a little salt and pepper.
  • On a gentle heat, fry the chopped shallots/spring onions and chopped green pepper in a little olive oil until soft. Add the crushed garlic and cook very little more, taking care not to brown the garlic as it will go bitter. Then remove from the pan, drain and set aside.
  • Gently fry the monkfish pieces until beginning to take on a golden colour. Depending on the quantity, fry a few pieces at a time, and reserve.
  • Drain the oil from the pan and make sure there is no burnt residue that will make the sauce bitter. (If necessary, clean out the pan carefully with kitchen paper.)
  • Return the monkfish to the pan with the onions etc. Add the saffron/ pinch of turmeric, a squeeze of lemon juice and a little water/ stock.
  • Shake the pan and stir gently to allow the flour coating the monkfish to thicken the sauce slightly.
  • Simmer gently, adding a little more water if necessary, for about ten minutes or until the fish is nearly cooked through.
  • Add the mussels/clams and a little more water if necessary. Cover the pan and turn up the heat, shaking gently until the mussels/clams have opened. Then immediately turn off the heat. (Overcooking mussels and clams makes them go rubbery and lose flavour).
  • Stir in the chopped flat leaf parsley and adjust seasoning if necessary.

    This is more filling than it looks. It can be served as it is for a first course or with fried potato slices added to the dish for a main, accompanied by a simple, dressed green salad.

    Today you will often find Brochetas de Rape (Monkfish Kebabs) served as a simple tapa or starter:

You will need:

  • 1 Monkfish tail
  • 2 Sprigs fresh thyme
  • 12 - 14 slices of serrano ham


  • Take one monkfish tail and chop in half.
  • Sprinkle the fresh thyme over the fish.
  • Wrap the tail in strips of thinly sliced serrano ham and secure in place with cocktail sticks.
  • Place under the grill for 8 - 10 minutes.
  • Cut into medallions.
  • Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.

Serve with a fresh tomato salad.

Monday 6 July 2009

Gothic Science

I am reading an excellent book called A Natural History of Seeing by Simon Ings. His website is similarly amenable and wide-ranging and includes, for example his astute review of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale.

In Simon Ings's book - which is subtitled The Art & Science of Vision - there is, in Chapter Two, a delightful account of the fantastic combination of two nineteenth century inventions – photography and the ophthalmoscope - for fictional (and other) purposes.

It’s possible to read this section online – Simon Ings has a list of what he calls ‘eye-openers’ – and this one is called ‘The Tell-Tale Eye’.

I recommend it.