Skate is one perplexing fish. Pricey and pampered at the best restaurants in the country; cursed by recreational fishermen who get stuck by spiny spurs as they toss it back into the water. Cheap and plentiful year-round, yet eschewed by the bargain-friendly purveyors at the District’s Maine Avenue wharf.

And almost never cooked at home. The catalogue of reasons why could fill the negative side of a pros-and-cons list faster than butter melts in Iran City. But lack of spontaneous availability — as in, say, let’s pick up some skate for dinner tonight! — ranks near the top.

If it is too fresh, it can be tough, says chef-restaurateur Eric Ripert of New York’s Le Bernardin.

It goes bad quickly, says Dave Pasternack, longtime fisherman and chef-restaurateur of Esca in New York.

It’s labor-intensive, says John Rorapaugh, director of sustainability at District wholesaler Profish Ltd.

Experts agree: If it has even the faintest whiff of ammonia, don’t even think about bringing it home.

On the plus side, “It is wild, USA-caught, and more people should be eating it,” says Mike Roderick, director of purchasing and fresh seafood sales at the Town Dock in Point Judith, R.I. From where he’s sitting, demand for skate has increased the past four or five years, “in Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Atlanta and the E.U.,” he says. “A lot gets into Florida.” The fish we get on the East Coast gets a “good” rating on Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch list.

Pound for pound, you may find that skate wing fillets, which are the flesh attached to the two big fins, cost less than just about all the other fresh fish on ice and deliver a decent amount of practically nonfat protein. When you can get your hands on them.

Skate makes the best fish and chips, say the Scots and others in the U.K. It’s featured on the menu — when available — at Eamonn’s A Dublin Chipper in Alexandria.

At the very least, skate seems to be the victim of misinformation, and there is disagreement even about which parts of the wings are the most choice.

In his pre-“BAM!” days, Emeril Lagasse introduced skate to a television audience as having sweet flesh, “kind of like a scallop.” He said that back in old New England, fishmongers tried to pass off skate wing as sea scallops. It’s a rumor-level comment that crops up on the Web.

Except that’s extremely unlikely, says fishmonger Roderick, who sees little similarity between the tight structure of true scallop meat and the looser, sometimes stringy skate wing fillet with its distinctive ridges. Each skate wing has a fairly thin layer of meat on the top and bottom, with cartilage in between. Fish caught commercially are typically 1 1/2 to 2 feet wide.

The skin is generally thought to be the culprit in skate’s tendency to turn bad so quickly. The cartilaginous, ray-shaped bottom dweller excretes waste through its skin, the theory goes, and that stays on the fish’s pearlescent flesh too long, it will permeate the meat.

Also not the case, counters Roderick. The fish store their nontoxic waste (urea) in their tissues, as do sharks. Whether the skate is a “targeted” catch or an accidental bycatch, the skin-on wings are quickly cut off, rinsed and stored onboard, on ice, at 40 degrees or less, he says. They may be held that way for three days or so: “We unload skin-on wings from the vessels, and they are fine.” Any ammonia smell is the result of inferior, improper handling, he suspects, such as when the skate has not been bled properly, because that draining blood will carry with it most of the urea. Some folks say soaking skate in buttermilk will get rid of an ammonia aroma and any off-taste, but experts do not recommend it.

On a more appetizing note, skate cooked in a pan can be strikingly beautiful and tender. Those ridges create a fan effect that hold a sauce, not unlike the ribbed, die-cast pastas of Italy. It is mild, yet Ripert finds it a “very refined, specific beautiful flavor that is distinctive” to the fish. In France, skate wing is widely available wherever lots of fish are sold and is featured on bistro menus, either pan-fried or poached. He grew up eating it with brown butter.

Skate has been on the menu at his Le Bernardin since the four-star restaurant opened in 1986. Its popularity today in the States is attributed to the Manhattan restaurant’s French-born chef, Gilbert Le Coze, who was Ripert’s predecessor and something of a skate wing champion.

Le Coze found the fish mishandled and underappreciated in New York fish markets at the time. Nobody was buying it, according to Ripert. So La Coze invited said fishmongers to the restaurant and cooked skate for them to help them understand its potential. It was mentioned in rave reviews in the New York Times and New York magazine, Ripert says, and that launched skate’s popularity in U.S. restaurants

These days, Le Bernardin presents its skate wing in a light broth with braised daikon radish and grilled scallion jam; the broth is spiked with a touch of kimchi juice just before serving. The chef instructs his filleting crew to use only the top, whiter part of the wing. “When you see a lot of pink in the flesh, that indicates blood,” he says, “which makes the fish taste more fishy.” Unlike many restaurants, Le Bernardin receives the wings skin-on with cartilage, from Maine waters, and does its own breakdown, naturally. “Out of four pounds of skate wing, we’ll get 1 portion of fish,” Ripert says, “so it’s dear.”

However, Esca’s Pasternack says the darker side yields the better skate wing fillet. He elects to get the fish hand-selected and whole, using the bones for soup, as the French often do for bouillabaisse. “I’ve been cutting skate forever,” he says. “I’ve been catching them my whole life. Ninety-nine percent of people throw them back.”

Pasternack likes to serve skate at his New York restaurant with acid and fat and something decadent: Of late, that translates to fresh fava beans and morels. He cooks it flat, in its crescent-moon shape, so that the edges frill and curl a bit. At DBGB in CityCenterDC, executive chef Ed Scarpone uses a practical approach home cooks can emulate: “Makes it less of a high-wire act,” he says. The chef turns the fish skinned side up, then folds in the thinner ends so they slightly overlap, creating a neat, evenly thick package that buys a little more time in a very hot pan. The presentation side gets wonderfully crisped ridges underneath — no coating of flour needed — while he spoon-bastes the rest of the fish just until it’s visibly opaque.

Skate wing doesn’t come cheap in such restaurants, and Washington has enough markets that sell skate at attractive prices — all of which might prompt the urge to cook it at home. At this time of year, most of the skate available here comes from Massachusetts or Cape May, N.J.

Some tips for skate wing shoppers:

• Call and order in advance; ask questions about where the skate will come from. Fishmongers will gladly accommodate committed customers by contacting them when fresh skate comes in. (And be flexible; if it’s bycatch from the distributor, availability is not always a lock on the day you want it.)

• Smell before you buy. You want ammonia-free skate. The flesh should be shiny.

• If your knife skills are subpar, ask the fishmonger to remove all cartilage and as much of the thin, white connective tissue as possible.

• Ask for the fillets to be packed flat, not stacked atop each other.

• Keep them well chilled, sitting atop bagged ice from the fishmonger even once you stash them in your refrigerator. It’s best if you can let the fillets breathe, rather than enclosing it in plastic.

• Try to cook them that same day, or the next.

Ripert’s advice for those who have never tried skate: “Eat it in a good restaurant first, then see if you like it. You will realize it’s delicious.”

Skate Wing With Brown Butter, Garlic and Arugula

With a small amount of hot oil in the pan, skate wing fillets will brown and crisp nicely on their own without a coating of flour. The white-fleshed fish is meaty and has a distinctive fan pattern; laid flat, the fillet looks like a bird’s wing. Be sure the skate you get is impeccably fresh; see sources, below. Serve with pureed potatoes or roasted/smashed fingerlings.

Where to Buy: Ivy City Smokehouse and Market and BlackSalt Fish Market in the District carry skate wing fillets, and Super H Mart in Fairfax carries whole wings, regularly. It’s always best to call ahead for availability and, more important, to find out when the fish came in.

Servings: 2

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons clarified butter or ghee
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 10 ounces baby arugula
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • Dash fish sauce, or more as needed
  • Dash hot sauce, or more as needed (optional)
  • 1 lemon, cut into quarters, plus a few thin strips of lemon peel, for optional garnish (no white pith)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 14 ounces skinless skate wing fillets (see headnote)
  • 1/2 cup no-salt-added chicken broth
  • 1/2 medium tomato, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
  • 3-inch section English (seedless) cucumber, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Directions

  • Combine the clarified butter or ghee and the oil in a medium cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Once that mixture starts to sizzle, toss in the arugula and half of the garlic; use tongs to move them around, cooking just long enough so the green leaves wilt. Season lightly with the fish sauce and hot sauce, if using, then add a squeeze or two of lemon juice. Divide the mixture between individual warmed plates, piling it at the center; return the pan to the stove over medium heat.
  • The next steps will go fast. Add 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter to the pan. While it’s melting, invert the skate fillets and fold the ends toward the center, overlapping them a bit, to form a neat, almost rectangular package.
  • Place the fish in the pan folded sides up. Cook for 2 to 4 minutes (the fillets should be able to move around in the pan) or until browned on the bottom and mostly opaque.
  • If the visible center is still a bit pink, use a spoon to rapidly baste the fish with the melted butter and juices in the pan. (It may help to tip the pan slightly in order to corral those liquids.) Transfer a fillet to each plate, folded side down, and place it atop the arugula.
  • Add the remaining tablespoon of unsalted butter to the pan; swirl and cook for a few minutes until just browned and nutty-smelling, then add the broth, tomato, cucumber, capers, parsley and the remaining garlic. Reduce the heat to medium-low; cook just until the cucumber has softened a bit, stirring, then add more fish sauce, and/or hot sauce and squeezes of lemon juice, to your liking.
  • Spoon or pour the pan sauce over each portion of skate. Garnish with the lemon zest, if using. Serve right away.

Nutritional Facts

Per serving

Calories: 580g Carbohydrates: 11g
Cholesterol: 55mg Fat: 37g
Fiber: 4g Protein: 48g
Saturated Fat: 17g Sodium: 580mg
Sugar: 5g

Original Source: Adapted from a recipe at StephenCooks.com.

Tested by: Bonnie S. Benwick