Wolffish: One of the tastiest creatures in the sea

October 22nd, 2020
Bucatini and Wolffish Fra Diavolo on a plate
Bucatini and Wolffish Fra Diavolo. Photo courtesy of Bill St. John.

The most frequent question that both cooks and eaters ask about any strange or strangely-named food is “Well, what’s it taste like?”— and “like chicken” is just more often false than helpful. Or, really, both.

And, so, to wolffish, one of the strangest of sea fish, but also one of the more delicious. People will tell you that “wolffish tastes like monkfish,” which latter fish other people further claim “is poor man’s lobster.” So, a fair pescatarian syllogism would be that wolffish tastes like lobster.

Wrong. (For my part, I don’t think that monkfish tastes much like lobster anyway.)

Wolffish is as pearly white and shaded slightly pink as either cod or ocean perch and cooks to an even more brilliant, opaque white than they do. It is “sweet,” as seafood goes, with what fish aficionados call a “satisfying” taste. Because its diet is mostly small prey along the sea bottom, and heavy on the shellfish, its flesh is rich.

Wolffish is so named because, when alive, this thing looks ugly-mean. It resembles more a huge eel than a cute Nemo-y fish, sports a Freddie Mercury overbite, and is so rapacious that it scarfs (wolfs?) down crabs, mussels and sea urchins, shells and all.

Its French name—“loup de mer”—sounds alluring (because charm is what the French language does), but is merely a mirror translation of the English, “wolf of the sea,” or wolffish.

That said, French cooks highly prize wolffish, both because of its taste and because its flesh holds up in the cooking. In all his years, Paul Bocuse’s most-ordered creation at his restaurant near Lyon, France, was a whole “loup de mer en croute,” wolffish fully encrusted in pastry.

More great tips and recipes from Bill St. John.

Indeed, its great calling card in the kitchen is that it doesn’t flake or fall apart (when cooked through) as can other white-fleshed fish such as cod, trout or halibut. This is why it almost always appears in French fish soups such as bouillabaisse or bourride; its blocks or chunks ride the liquid all the way from the stovetop pot to the tabletop bowl.

Like tilefish, skate, catfish or buffalo fish—all possible substitutes for wolffish in the recipe here—wolffish is both marine and meaty at once.

It’s a “cow with gills.”

About the only importer of wolffish to these parts is Niceland Seafood, which has a convenient store locator on its website, nicelandseafood.com.

Bucatini and Wolffish Fra Diavolo

“Fra Diavolo” preparations take their name from a particularly mischievous Italian monk, “Brother Devil.” So, a big “yes” to all the copious quantities in this recipe: the olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, green herbs. Don’t skimp, you devil you. Makes 3-4 servings. 

Ingredients

1 package bucatini or other long-form pasta such as spaghetti

3/4 pound wolffish, cut into 1-inch chunks

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 heaping teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

1/2 cup fruity extra virgin olive oil

6 cloves garlic, peeled, smashed, roughly chopped

1 14-ounce can diced good quality tomatoes

1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

4 tablespoons basil, stemmed, finely chopped

1 cup 50/50 mix Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano cheese, grated

Directions

Toss the wolffish in a bowl with salt and pepper to taste and the red pepper flakes. Set aside for 15 minutes. In a very large pot, begin to heat to boiling abundant, very well-salted water.

When ready to cook, lay out what you’ll need in the kitchen, on the stove, and in the sink because, once the pasta water is boiling, such a set-up works to cook the fish, the sauce, and the pasta side by side. At our elevation, it may take a full 12-13 minutes to boil the pasta (if it is dried) merely to al dente.

In a large skillet or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat; when just shimmering, add the garlic and stir for 45 seconds until fragrant. Add the reserved wolffish, scraping the pepper flakes into the pan, and sauté, tossing or turning a couple times, 1 minute. Push the fish to the side of the pan.

Lower the heat slightly and add the tomatoes to the pan, crushing them with your hands as you add them, or with a potato masher, or the back of a flat spatula. Stir, incorporating the fish and garlic, and cook until the sauce thickens slightly, about 8-9 minutes more. (You may need to cover the skillet for the first 2-3 minutes to get the sauce going.)

While doing all that, on an adjacent burner, cook the bucatini in the boiling water until 1 minute from al dente; remove and keep aside 1 cup of the pasta water and drain the pasta in a colander, quickly adding it back into the pasta pot, lowering the heat to medium. Add the green herbs, stirring, 30 seconds, then the tomatoes and fish pieces. Gently stir everything together, adding small amounts of the reserved pasta water if too thick or dry. Serve, passing the grated cheese.

You may reach Bill St John at billstjohn@gmail.com

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.