Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Mystery of the Skate Wing

Although I never made a particularly good engineer, I love systems. They have this amazing ability to make complex things simple and understandable in an elegant sort of way. Before you get worried that I am getting all geeky here on you, let me assure you that this post will only talk about culinary systems (you didn't really think I was going to write about operating systems, did you?). After I came up with my little system of fin fish personalities about 5 years ago, cooking fish became incredibly simple. I could buy and cook any fin fish with confidence even if I've never heard its name before. The rule of err on the site of under-cooking and remove from heat when some translucency remains in the center always worked. Any fish I tried to cook was moist and succulent. Any fish, except...

There is a little secret I've only hinted at before. There are two fish that don't fit into my system, and they've made me nervous for years: monkfish and skate wing. I hate to discriminate between fish, but these two creatures are just weird. What discouraged me even more than my failed attempts to produce quality monkfish and skate wing dishes was trying them in restaurants. Whenever I ordered one of them, they were dry. About a year ago, I had a monkfish epiphany. I tried a whole braised monkfish tail in a restaurant and I was hooked. This preparation goes against everything I've ever understood about fish cookery, but it works like a charm.

Last week I had a similar eye-opening experience with skate wing. We were having dinner at our favorite Boston restaurant, Ten Tables. They had skate on the menu and we decided to try it. I figured if I don't like David Punch's skate, I'll probably never ever like this weird fish. To my surprise, I absolutely loved it! The beauty of having dinner at the "chef's table" (a 2 person bar next to the open kitchen) is that I get to chat with the line cooks. David wasn't there that night, but his sous chef was very nice about answering my endless questions.

The cooking method wasn't surprising. They seared skate in a very hot pan in butter until it was nicely browned and crisp. What was interesting was that the skate was served "on the bone". Well, technically it's not a bone. It's cartilage that separates the top and bottom fillets. Cooked this way, it was much more moist than the boneless preparations. Tip number one: find skate on the bone and keep it that way.

My second question was about how much of that "silver skin" connective tissue to remove from skate's surface before cooking. What better way to find out than to ask the chef to see a raw piece of skate. He gladly obliged and showed me one of the portions ready for cooking. The skate was completely trimmed of all connective tissue to expose long strands of flesh. I am not sure why both monkfish and skate are sold untrimmed when they taste so much better trimmed. My guess is that it's too time consuming for a fish market to trim all this connective tissue. Tip number two: get that boning knife out and set to work.

The most important clue was the timing. The chef told me that cooking skate is just the opposite of cooking other fish -- the longer you cook it, the more tender it gets. "Well, within reason," he added. "You can certainly overcook it." Tip number three: don't rush your skate.

Hmm, so where do I find skate on the bone? Most fish markets sell it already deboned. But I have never paid attention to this strange little fish at the New Deal fish market. If anyone sells it on the bone, they do. The next day, I snatched the last piece of skate wing that Carl had. Sure enough it was on the bone and pretty well trimmed on one side. The other side still had the skin, which I removed before cooking. I worked on it a little more with my boning knife until it looked as clean as at Ten Tables.

I dried the skate well on paper towels and seasoned with salt and pepper on both sides. Then I preheated a cast iron pan on high until is was almost smoking and added a dollop of duck fat I had left over from teaching a French Bistro class the day before. In went the skate to sear until a nice brown crust formed on the bottom, 3-4 minutes. I regulated the heat so that it cooks at a lively pace without burning. After flipping the fish, I put the pan in the oven to finish cooking with a more even heat for another 3 minutes. Considering the whole thing was about 1/2 inch thick, that's ages. Normally, I'd cook a fish of this thickness for 4 minutes total. When I got it out, I poked the flesh with a fork to see if it was coming off the bone well. It had no translucency that I expect to see when I take the fish off the heat, but was very moist and came off the bone very easily.

Finally, it was a skate worth eating -- the texture was as good as at Ten Tables. I wish I wasn't lazy about flavoring and made a little pan sauce for this fish, but after teaching a 4 hour pasta workshop, I was tired. I served it on top of an asparagus sauce leftovers I had in my fridge, which was just an ok combination (too mild for this preparation). Next time, I'd throw some shallots in the pan after removing the skate. Deglaze with a little white wine and finish with butter and capers. Any sort of bacony side dish would be perfect too. Ten Tables served it with braised brussel sprouts and bacon. Yum!

I feel much better now that I can see some similarities between monkfish and skate. They no longer seem like exceptions, but like a different group of fish whose properties I can analyze and take into account when choosing a cooking strategy.

Here is what I've learned about working with them:
  1. Whenever possible, cook them on the bone. In both cases, the bones are huge and very easy for diners to remove.
  2. Trim all the connective tissues. They toughens up during cooking encasing the fish in a chewy sack.
  3. Cook longer than all the other fin fish. Hmm, actually, I wonder if monk and skate are even considered to be fin fish (probably not, because they are so different anatomically). I haven't cooked these fish enough to give you a clear formula like I have for other fillets and steaks (8 +/- 2 minutes per inch of thickness). My guess is that these guys take twice as long. When you test for doneness, wait for the fish to get completely opaque before removing it off the heat. If you keep them on the bone, the easiest doneness test is to see if they come off the bone easily.
  4. The only serious difference between monk and skate is that skate seems to be much better cooked with direct dry cooking methods, like searing, and monk is best braised -- first a quick sear and then finished on low indirect heat with some liquid.

37 comments:

Rose said...

I love Skate Wing and I eat it only on the bone, but for some reason it tickles my palate, literally, when I eat it. I don't know if it's only me or if it is common.

Helen said...

Hmm, my palate might not be very ticklish, but I've never experienced what you are describing :)

pom d'api said...

Hi! I love this dish.

Rose said...

I tried yesterday the skate wing with the capper and butter sauce that you suggested. MMMMM, it was divine. I just added a thin slice of Roquefort to the sauce and it was to die for. But you know what the fish still tickles my palate and even my skin itches when I rinse the fish. It might be an allergie or something but not a serious one since I enjoyed the dish very much. Thank you very much for the recipe and for your helpful tips.

Helen said...

Hi Rose,

We must have made the same dish this weekend :) I got another piece of skate and cooked it with a shallot, caper, butter sauce. Roquefort sounds interesting -- I've never tried adding a cheese to a fish sauce (except for cream cheese).

Speaking about allergies. I didn't rinse the fish (since I don't rinse any proteins). But while I was skinning it, my hands were just burning. I attributed it to terribly dry skin, but still that amount of burning was unusual. It also happens to me when I peel fire roasted eggplants. What amazes me is that I am perfectly fine eating these foods. But my hands have a very strong reaction when I touch them. Of course, both skate and eggplant go through further cooking, so it's possible that some chemical reaction happens making them perfectly fine to eat.

Cheers,
-Helen

BipolarLawyerCook said...

Helen, my husband and I ate at TT the other night and they still had the skate on the menu. Of course I had to order it, after your write up. It was, of course, wonderful. It's only the second time I've had it (first being at a fish fry in London) but it's so much meatier and yet not salmon that I've got to hunt it down and cook it more often. Thanks for the cooking and prep tips.

Helen said...

Hi LawyerCook,

So glad you enjoyed the skate at 10 Tables. We were just at Rendez Vous in Central Square and their skate was fabulous as well. These two are my favorite places for fish these days.

Cheers,
-Helen

Terry B said...

Interestingly, we've avoided skate wing BECAUSE of the bone. But over the weekend, we found some fillets, and my wife cooked them very quickly in brown butter with capers. They were moist and wonderfully delicious.

I'm only just now commenting here because after the fabulous skate wing dish, I was trying to remember what you had said about it.

Anonymous said...

Raw skate wing has a neurotoxin in it which is easily taken care of by cooking it well. This denatures the protein so that it has no effect on you. This is also why skate should never be served raw.

I'm guessing that when working with it raw that it could have a tingling sensation if it gets into your system.

Anonymous said...

Skate is delicious and under utilized. I am not into science and forget alot of what I did know, but I am a fisherman and catch skate as a by-product alot. Skate excretes urea (urine I believe and/or a neurotoxin) thru their skin when dead or dying. This could be the cause of reactions in your mouth and/or skin. The way to prevent this is thru immediately bleeding, gutting, cleaning/skinning (winging) the skate and getting on ice. The only way to make sure this is done correctly is to catch 'em and do it yourself--which by the way fishing for skate is as fun or more fun then fishing for any other species.

Ensure when purchasing skate it does not have an ammonia scent at all--that is simply urea and means it is made it to the meat.

From a commercial stand point--skate does not fetch enough $$ @ market to make the process required worth the money. Although with fish stocks being depleted the commercial value of skate is on the rise once again.

Anonymous said...

Had my first taste of skatewing last night at Le Bouchon in Chicago, done in a simple browned butter. It is now my new favorite fishdish! (It doesn't resemble those skatewings I used to find washed up on Wells Beach in Maine. If I'd only known then how delicious it actually was...) Rose mentioned the tickling, I thought it was my imagination, BUT it did tickle my lips.

Donna said...

I read all your suggestions for skate wing. I cooked it at home . Anonymous was very right. Mine had that ammonia smell even after it was well cooked. The taste was good but an ammonia got to my mouth, lungs. Just couldn't eat it. The house smells like skate 4 weeks after and there's now way to kill the smell.

Anonymous said...

Any fish which smells of ammonia is NOT fresh. I eat skate all the time and it never smells of ammonia. Ammonia on stale fish mostly smells on fish when it starts to heat up. Take it back to your fishmonger and demand your money back...you've been had!

fluffernutter said...

I made good skate some yrs ago when we lived in England, but I rarely see it here and I'd forgotten how. Used this recipe last night -- skate on the bones and peeling the connective tissue made for a great meal. And anyting with caper garlic butter is going to be great. Thanks for all the info.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes if you just smell the skate a normal wiff its fine. in order to smell the amonia you have to smell deep (unless it in your face ammonia) if it is faint ...you can soak it in acidulated water and this will draw out the alkakine aka ammonia. p.s Skate excrete theyir bodilly fluids threw there skin and flesh. they are prone to the ammonia. fishmongers usually treat them in a solution to kill of the ammonia smell. so just buy it fresh and if it does'nt look or smell tastey raw cooking it isnt going to make it magically fresh.

Anonymous said...

We ate it for the first time this past weekend. What a wonderful surprise. The upscale Greek restaurant in Atlanta served it pan seared in a bowl surrounded by Greek lentil soup with capers and diced carrots.

lucyannapearl said...

I had a similar reaction to the skate during prep: Had to hold it tight cutting it into pieces and the spiny cartiledge cut into my palm, causing it to itch and hurt a bit for quite a while.
This was my first time with skate and I found it rather gelatinous and rich, tho I used an Italian recipe braising it with sauteed onions, capers, garlic. I added lots of lemon to counteract the richness. Can any body help
on this?

Anonymous said...

I love that you posted about your skate and monkfish experiences. As it happens I made monkfish at home last night for the first time. And, I will be getting skate wing from my Whole Foods on Monday. Over this weekend I will be posting the monkfish recipe, partly Joy of Cooking, partly Rick Stein, partly me. I'll be posting about the skate wing on Tuesday. I have a unique way of preparing it. If you're so inclined: http://theobsessivechef.blogspot.com

JacquelineC said...

This is not only an issue of critically endangered species conservation. It destroys ocean habitat and the poor things are often fished, "wings" cut off, then the still live fish is tossed overboard. F'n barbaric. Do not eat them. Tell your fishmongers not to supply them. Good alternatives are US Farmed Sturgeon and Diver Scallops.

Anonymous said...

Skates produce an ammonia-based slime to protect their skin. Any skate that has been sitting out there on sale for more than a few days will definitely smell really bad. Do not age your skate for too long! To ensure the slime goes off, you could try blanching the skate for about 5 mins then remove the skin

Anonymous said...

I love skate. I z
am in London UK and skate is a regular dish here. It's considered posh because it is more expensive than cod, haddock, plaice. I've eaten it for 50 years. Kt always makes my lips tingle. I say, oh? that skate has made my lips tingle, but I thought nothing of it. It's worth the tingle to enjoy the skate. I also eat all of the bones. I crunch them up - lovely!!
If skate smells of amonia then it is NOT fresh, and is stale. The tast of amonia when cooked will be overpowering and horrid to eat. Never buy it if there's the slightest whif of amonia. It should not smell of anything - no smell. It's best fried so the outside is crispy. Baked is okay. Fried is best.

Anonymous said...

I love skate. I z
am in London UK and skate is a regular dish here. It's considered posh because it is more expensive than cod, haddock, plaice. I've eaten it for 50 years. Kt always makes my lips tingle. I say, oh? that skate has made my lips tingle, but I thought nothing of it. It's worth the tingle to enjoy the skate. I also eat all of the bones. I crunch them up - lovely!!
If skate smells of amonia then it is NOT fresh, and is stale. The tast of amonia when cooked will be overpowering and horrid to eat. Never buy it if there's the slightest whif of amonia. It should not smell of anything - no smell. It's best fried so the outside is crispy. Baked is okay. Fried is best.

Anonymous said...

Hi, we eat a lot of skate (we call it ray) over here. The tingle tells you it's fresh (per our mothers' tales). Never eat it if smelly (we call it pissy ray then) as it's stale. As you did, I pan fry it in a bit of butter dusted in savoury flour.

Anonymous said...

JEANA FROM SOUTH CAROLINA

MY BEST FRIEND'S HUSBAND IS FROM THE ISLANDS(BARBADOS) AND HE HAS LIVED IN CHARLESTON SOUTH CAROLINA FOR SEVERAL YEARS NOW. I HAD MY FIRST TASTE OF SKATE WING ON LAST SATURDAY AND IT WAS ABSOLUTELY DEVINE. HE LIGHTLY SALTED AND PEPPERED AND FLOURED IN THIS SPECIAL BREADING THAT HE BUYS IN CHARLESTON, SORRY I FORGOT THE NAME AND HE FRIED IT IN PURE OLIVE OIL AND IT WAS SCRUMPTIOUS. WE EVEN ATE THE CARTILAGE, HE SAID IS THAT IS HOW HIS MOTHER PREPARED IT AND YOU JUST ATE THE WHOLE THING AND THAT IS WHAT WE DID. I HAVE CALLED EVERY FISH PROVIDER IN TOWN WHERE I LIVE (COLUMBIA SC) AND NO ONE HAS EVEN HEARD OF IT. SO I WILL JUST LET SAMMIE KNOW THE NEXT TIME MY HUBBY AND I WANT SOME AND HAVE HIM TO BRING IT UP AND PREPARE.

jclark0808 said...

I just had my first encounter with skate (in person) went fishing by Virginia Beach, and nabbed me 4 skates. I was really excited to take a stab at cooking skate, but I didn't know what to expect.

The cleaning and skinning part was by far the most difficult... took me about 2 and a half hours total (I also had to gut and clean 6 croakers, but those are regular fish and took no time at all) Either way, it got done, and then I quartered each wing and put them back in the fridge.

I tried the butter and capers recipe, and was very pleased with the results. I actually didn't really use a recipe, just went with what you suggested in your blog - salt & peppered both sides, instead of duck fat, I put on 2 Ts of unsalted butter, waited for it to brown, then plopped on 6 pieces of skate. After flipping and putting them in the oven, I made the sauce in the same pan with onions instead of shallots (didn't have those at the time), added white wine after the onions became translucent, then after a couple minutes added butter and capers.

The dish turned out great. The meat was oh so tender and sooooo sososososo good. And my mother ate the cartilege, stating that it was extremely high in calcium. I'll try the cartilege later when I use a recipe that cooks it longer, but for now, it was too crunchy for me.

My lips and tongue are nice and tingly now :) I mean, it's as fresh as you can get, haha.

Btw, I've had skate before... raw, in a korean noodle dish called Neng Myun.... It's awesome raw, and the neurotoxins aren't anything you really have to worry about, IMHO. I've eaten it multiple times raw, even as sashimi, just not cooked.

Cheers!

Anonymous said...

My husband caught a skate yesterday at Waituna, Southland, NZ. I'm cookin it now. hope it turns out ok. One end is thick and taking ages to cook, other end is thin, hope it doesn't get all rubbery on the thin end. I'll let you know how it goes.... Esther

Rodney Sparks said...

I'm glad I found some cooking instructions! We went on a chartered boat today and caught a skate and a bunch of bat rays. How's bat ray? The thick end of the wing is a good 2" thick, and I'm thinking that about 1/3 of the wing might be best prepared as steaks! The skate is about 1" thick at the root of the wing.

I'll let you know how it turns out. ;-)

Michelle said...

I like skate lightly dredged, well seasoned and pan seared in brown butter. It doesn't need a sauce, really. Maybe a light squeeze of lemon, but it is so creamy on its own.

As for monk, I grill it, basting it with some shallot butter as I turn it. Yum! It holds up well to grilling and the grill gives it a great smokiness.

Anonymous said...

Responding to Jacqueline C - Often, skate are caught unintentionally, gaffed, and thrown overboard to die. In many areas, skate are numerous and considered "trash fish". Far better to consume it if caught than to return it to the water critically (fatally) injured from the hook set for drum, rockfish, shark, and/or cobia.

Boomshanka said...

I am not a big fish eater, and when I do make it I prefer it a little more meaty than flakey. Last week I was given skate and manta as a gift to play with. (I am a Chef by trade, but like I said, not a big fish person.) Now this one is a little odd so bear with me. Clean the wing completely. No bone. Cut against the grain into strips
and deadge in some flour that has S+P and onion powder. Sear in bacon fat in a HOT skillet. It should curl up almost like octopus. I tossed it in a simple spring mix with some baby bok choy while it was still hot. I used the fat to make a quick vinagrette. I almost pessed out when I took my first bite! It was part filet mignon, part octopus. And that was just the texture. You could still really taste the fish. I am now a fan for life.

Matthew Brown said...

Tried this and made the pan sauce with basil, lemon and capers. Turned out really nice!

Anonymous said...

Just bought some meaty Skate Wing Steaks at an Asian market. These look like the body of the fish- they are not the bony wings which I have had and enjoyed before. I've never previously seen or heard of skate steaks. Are these really edible and if so, then how do you cook them?

Helen Rennie said...

I've never heard of skate steaks. Ask the store where you got them how to prepare them. I'd love to know what they say and how your dish comes out.

Anonymous said...

I live in Australia and we usually got skate fishing during summer. I've never even thought of eating the wings, we just take the meat off the tail. It's virtually shark meat. I might try the wings next time we get some though :)

Thomas Dent said...

Hi my name is Thomas. I grew up in Ireland and ate ray at least every other week. We ate fish at least twice a week. I lived in a suburb on the north side of Dublin but my parents came from an old fishing town called Ringsend. Ringsend was the end of the Dublin Quays,on the river Liffy,were the fishing trawlers used to tie up and unload their catch. When the trawlers unloaded their catch they would remove from the boxes the Ray(skate) and give or sell to the poor people of Ringsend, as it was regarded by the customers in Dublin as a trash fish(bottom feeder) so it was used as packing to protect the Salmon, Cod,Sole and other fish that would fetch a better price. This is the reason Ringsend picked up the derogatory name of "Raytown". The name was used to class the people of Ringsend as poor and bad taste. The irony is that nowadays Ray is one of the most expensive and hard to get fish. My mother thought me how to cook and we only cooked ray one of two ways. The first and most regular way was to coat in seasoned flour and pan fry in lard until the ends of the ray curl and are crispy. The second way was only for my dad. The ray would be pan fried but not so crispy then removed from the pan leaving a nice fond behind. My mother would then add a roughly sliced onion some butter and sweat until softened. She would the add a cup or two of water stir and put the ray back on the onions cover and simmer for 8-10 mins. The result was a nice fish/onion sauce that was poured over the plated ray. We called ray "itchyfish" as we sometimes would get itchy lips as children when eating ray My mother said that was a sign that it was fresh. In Dublin you could get two cuts of ray one was Long and the other Flat. The Long ray was cut from the middle of the large Ray wings this,while being a more slender cut,was much thicker. This allowed for better cooking of the wings by making the pieces more uniform in thickness. We also referred to bad ray as "Pissy Fish". After reading your blog this is obviously explained by the facts on the unique bodily functions of the ray. By the way the Belgians also love ray and cook it in a caper butter sauce. Monk fish is one of the best fish for numerous sauces. Also these fish are great for children as there are no bones only cartilage.

Anonymous said...

So it looks like we are discussing skate for over7 years now! That's pretty wonderful. I am commenting because I remember a delicious skate on a French restaurant menu, cooked with brown butter, lemon and capers. It was likely trimmed up; the pieces were small- it was tender and superb. Just the other day I noticed skate being sold at my local store ( a smaller local non chain natural food store), along with Lake Superior wild trout which is local to our area . So I looked for information about how to cook it and know more about it and found this site! Look forward to trying it myself.

Anonymous said...

Last night I cooked skate for the first time AND ate it for the first time after reading all your comments. It turned out wonderful. Unlike the writer's suggestion, my skate was already de-boned.

First I soaked it in milk for an hour. Then patted it semi dry and removed the remaining connective tissue. Sprinkled both sides with salt and pepper, then dredged in flour.

Since I was cooking 4 wings and am "lazy", I decided to broil them. In a big pan, I added a stick of butter and put in the oven to melt while prepping the skate. I took a little longer than I thought, so when I took the pan out, the butter was slightly browning so I added a glurg of olive oil. This turned out to be a good thing. I then added the wings to the pan and broiled at 500 for 4 min.

After the timer went off, I removed the pan from oven and flipped the skate. Then I added some minced garlic, marinated artichoke hearts, rough chopped assorted olives, and fresh basil on top of them. Then broiled for another 4 min.

I served over sauted onions, spinach, and cripy procuito (sp?) with a side a garlic smashed potatos.

It was a hit. The skate was amazingly tender and moist. I'm going to have to make it again.