This is a very standard Catalan preparation that is popular all along the coast. Monkfish is the most typical fish used for this dish, but any very firm fleshed fish can be used, and sometimes seafood, depending on what is available. The “burnt garlic” in the name is really just cooked golden brown. Don’t char it or you will get a very bitter and unpleasantly flavored sauce.
This is one of the simplest versions of the “a l'all cremat” sauce, but don’t let that fool you. The better your fish and fish stock are, the better this dish will turn out. If you use good quality, fresh fish, it will be absolutely delicious. You can use the spine that separates the 2 loins, to make a very flavorful stock.
Some people put almonds or hazelnuts in the picada, and some also add parsley. I have seen at least one version using some of the monkfish liver in the picada, as well. I love how elegant this simplified version is, using just the bread and garlic, but feel free to embellish it to your tastes.
Traditionally, the picada would be blended up in a mortar and pestle, adding a little liquid at a time until a thin paste is formed. Most people I know these days use a hand blender and a little extra liquid to blend it up.
Finally, I prefer blending this sauce because I think the smoothness makes it feel and look so much more elegant. Traditionally it wasn’t blended, but these days, many people do it my way. If you don’t want to blend it, it will taste every bit as good, it will just look and feel a little bit more rustic. No matter how you serve it, it won’t need much more than some crusty bread to help you mop up the sauce.
Monkfish is popular all over the coastal regions of Spain, on the Mediterranean and Atlantic sides. It is often available from good fishmongers the USA. It is sold in filets, steaks, and in large tail pieces, as shown in the picture.
How to process monkfish tail
To process a whole monkfish tail, begin by pulling off the skin from front (the fat end) to back (the pointy end). This is fairly easy with just your hands. Your fishmonger can do this messy job for you if you ask.
Next, there will still be a slimy membrane on top of the meat. Again, you can just pull this off with your hands (as in the next pic).
Now you are ready to decide how you want to cut the fish.
There is a large spine that runs down the middle, separating 2 big loin pieces. The spine is all cartilage, and there are no bones or ribs in the loins.
You can slice steaks by cutting across the tail, leaving a piece of loin on each side of a central spine piece. This is popular for many applications in Spain.
To remove the “boneless loins” (as in the pic above), simply trace down the edge of the spine with a sharp knife. They will easily separate and can then be cut into whatever sized pieces you want. The spine, being only cartilage, is then easily cut into pieces to make a flavorful fish stock.
Ingredients (Serves 4 as an entree)
7 or 8 cloves of garlic, peeled, left whole
1 small slice of day old bread
Generous amount of olive oil for cooking
8-10 almonds or hazlenuts (optional)
A few sprigs of parsley, roughly chopped (optional)
3 cups seeded, chopped tomatoes (canned or fresh)
1¼ cups very flavorful fish stock
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut in slices or chunks of your desired size
1½ lbs monkfish loin, cut in 3oz pieces
1. Add oil and garlic cloves to a cazuela or heavy-bottomed pan and heat on a medium-low flame. Watch the garlic carefully, and turn it often as it starts to brown. As the garlic cloves get browned nicely on all sides, remove them and set aside.
2. Add the bread to the same pan, and fry until lightly toasted. Turn over, and lightly toast the other side. Remove and set aside.
3. Add the tomatoes to the oil, being careful with splatters, and add a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring regularly, until the tomatoes are cooked down to almost a paste.
4. Make the picada: while the tomatoes are cooking down, combine the toasted bread with the garlic, and cover with ½ cup of the stock. Use a hand blender to blend it as smooth as possible.
You can add nuts or parsley here, if desired.
5. When the tomatoes have reached an almost paste-like consistency, pour in the picada, the remaining stock, and add the potatoes. Bring the liquid up to a boil, and immediately reduce to gently simmer. Cook until the potatoes are just about finished (check them for doneness with a small knife or cake tester).
6. Remove the potatoes and set aside. Remove the pan from the heat, blend all of the sauce until smooth, then add back to the pan.
Note: If you don’t want to blend the sauce, skip step 6, and when the potatoes are about “halfway cooked” go to step 7.
7. Taste the sauce, adjust salt if needed, then add the monkfish to the pan. Again, bring to a boil and quickly reduce to a gentle simmer. After 3 or 4 minutes, turn the monkfish pieces over and continue cooking for another 3 or 4 minutes, just long enough to cook the fish all the way through. Just before the fish is ready, add the potatoes back in to warm up.
Serve hot right away with good crusty bread.