Everyone has a slightly different take on how to prepare the Armoricaine sauce, but two ingredients are essential: a fish or shellfish stock base and a good pinch of cayenne pepper. Fish stock may sound fancy, but it is as easy to make as boiling water—you just have to ask for a few bones at your seafood store, which they’ll usually give you for free. This dish is usually served with rice, but I like to ladle my version over Buttermilk-Nori Mashed Potatoes for a change—and to keep everything really local. (Bretons are as fond of potatoes as the Irish.) My version also includes carrots and fennel, which make a lighter stew with more complex flavors and textures, but they’re both optional, and not entirely traditional.
1 pound fish bones—avoid oily fish like salmon, mackerel, or blue fish which can make the stock bitter
1 small onion, cut into small chunks
1 medium carrot, sliced
1 large sprig fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
¼ cup white wine, optional
Monkfish and Sauce
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds monkfish fillets, cut into 2 ½-inch chunks
¼ cup cognac or Calvados, optional
½ cup finely chopped shallots
1/2 cup diced fennel or celery, optional
1/2 cup diced carrots, optional
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 15-oz. can crushed tomatoes
2 cups Fish Stock
1 cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 small sprig fresh thyme
1 small bay leaf
2 tablespoons butter
Chopped parsley, for garnish
To make the Fish Stock: Cut up the fish bones to manageable sizes with scissors or a cleaver, and place them in a large saucepan or medium Dutch oven. Add the remaining ingredients and 4 cups water, or enough water to just cover the bones, and bring everything to a boil. Skim off any foam that forms on top of the stock, partially cover, and simmer over medium-low heat 25 to 30 minutes. Strain the stock through a fine mesh strainer, and reserve. Discard the bones and vegetables.
To make the Monkfish à l’Armoricaine: Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a medium Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sauté the monkfish fillet chunks in the oil 3 to 5 minutes, or until lightly browned. Add the cognac, if using, and either flambé the dish by turning off the heat and lighting the cognac with a match, or simmer the fish until all the cognac has evaporated. Transfer the fish chunks to a plate with a slotted spoon, and set aside.
Add more oil to the pot, if necessary, then sauté the shallots in the oil over medium heat 2 to 3 minutes, or until soft and translucent. Stir in the tomato paste and garlic, and cook 30 seconds or until the tomato paste begins to turn a darker red. Stir the crushed tomatoes, stock, white wine, cayenne pepper, thyme, and bay leaf. Partially cover, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. The sauce will turn a deeper red and begin to thicken.
Return the monkfish to the sauce, partially cover the pot once more, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer 15 to 20 minutes. (Up to this point, the dish can be prepared a day ahead.)
Just before serving, swirl the 2 tablespoons of butter into the sauce to finish the dish, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve over Buttermilk-Nori Mashed Potatoes.
To make the recipe with other types of fish: For more delicate fish types (salmon, halibut, cod, sea bass) skip step two (sautéing the fish), and start by sautéing the shallots, then deglazing with the cognac. Cook the sauce 30 minutes, then add the raw fish fillets or chunks, and simmer 10 to 15 minutes, or until the fish is just cooked through.