Skate, monkfish, huss and shark are all cartilaginous fish. They don't have that comb-shaped conformation of bones that most flat and round fish have, and they don't have little bones either.
What the fishmonger delivers to the kitchen is usually a large block of meat bisected by a cartilaginous backbone. At first glance, it may look as though there is little trimming to do and that they are high yielding compared with flatfish, oily fish and the cod family. Yet this is hardly the case. The tail of an average-sized monkfish weighing 1.75kg loses more than half its weight in trim. Fully prepped, the humble dogfish (or huss), belonging to the shark family, costs as much as a sirloin steak.
Twenty-five years ago, about the time Alan Davidson wrote his comprehensive North Atlantic Seafood, huss and monkfish were both selling along the south coast of England for 30p a pound. Since then, their relative fortunes have changed. Monkfish has risen to the premier league of restaurant fish, leaving its rival in the lower division. The reason is more to do with texture and cooking than with taste.
Monkfish is firm and meaty. Tails may weigh up to 3.5kg, though these large specimens are rarer than they once were. It lends itself to pan-frying, and it's better when lightly cooked.
On the other hand, huss - made up of lesser and greater spotted dogfish, smooth hounds and spur dogs - may top the scales at 4kg in total. Spotted dogs have pinker meat, which is why they were once sold as rock salmon, while spur dogs have a creamier flesh with a less assertive taste. All huss varieties are more palatable than, say, a large shark like porbeagle, but their soft, woolly texture counts against them, although it is better at absorbing other flavours. The fact they are long and thin is a further problem when it comes to serving them alone, although they are good for soups, stews and chowders. n
Filleting and trimming monkfish
Weight (head on): 5kg
Head to tail ratio: 3.25 to 1.75
Fully trimmed tail fillets: 2 x 400g
Trimmed weight as a percentage of tail: 46%
Percentage yield: 16%
Monkfish tails: £9 per kg
Trimmed cost per kg: £19.50
Cost of six main-course portions (about 160g): £3.25 per portion
Cost per 100g starter portion: £1.95
Filleting and trimming huss
Fishmongers will usually skin huss for their customers. It's easy to do - if you have strong forearms.
Weight (head on, gutted): 2.2kg
Fully trimmed fillets: 2 x 300g
Trimmed weight as a percentage: 27%
Spur huss: £2.50 per kg (£5.80 skinned)
Cost price trimmed fillet: £9.20 per kg
(Prices vary depending on the variety of huss. Dogfish - spotted dogs - are half the price of spur dogs.)
The freshness of fish
Every chef recognises the telltale ammonia smell of a skate that's starting to go off. All cartilaginous fish, including huss and monkfish, give the same warning signal. It's due to urea (a compound of urine) in their blood and tissues. After a fish's death this compound starts to break down and its smell grows progressively stronger.
With a huss or monkfish any light smell disappears with cooking, provided that the fish was relatively fresh to start with. It gives a rank, unpleasant taste if it wasn't.
The best clue to freshness is the colour of the blood. On all types of huss, blood should be bright and rosy. If it's turning brown, avoid it. With monkfish, look for the odd blotches of blood under the belly and at the neck. If it's not quite fresh, be wary.
Monkfish will keep longer than huss - up to a week from the time it was caught - when stored on ice in a dedicated fish fridge.
All about ramon
Ramon Farthing started his career as an apprentice in a fish restaurant, Gerald Milsom's the Pier at Harwich. When he and wife Karen bought 36 on the Quay at Emsworth, between Chichester and Portsmouth, the wheel had gone full circle.
In the 20 intervening years he earned his first Michelin star at Calcot Manor in the Cotswolds at the age of 25 - making him one of the youngest British chefs to achieve the accolade - before moving to Harvey's in Bristol. There he turned around the wine merchant's venerable time-warped cellar restaurant, bringing it the kind of stylish food that suited its world-class wine list. His move to the west coast brought immediate recognition from Michelin and three AA rosettes.
His approach to working with fish combines the enthusiasm of Rick Stein with the technical competence of Gordon Ramsay. He cooks as well with cod, skate and huss as with the highly-priced turbot, sole and bass.
Etouffée of Huss (serves two)
Photos © Sam Bailey