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:
- Whenever possible, cook them on the bone. In both cases, the bones are huge and very easy for diners to remove.
- Trim all the connective tissues. They toughens up during cooking encasing the fish in a chewy sack.
- 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.
- 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.