The Three Secrets of Skate

In trying to eat a more sustainable diet, I’m trying to eat more fish from lower on the fish chain. Sardines and mackerel instead of tuna and cod. Skate wing is pretty sustainable — it’s easy to catch, and best processed by the person fishing for it, and right away. It’s a little unusual in stores because most boats aren’t looking for skate. Since it’s usually a by-catch, the boat isn’t always prepared to do the quick processing that skate needs to prevent the neurotoxin in the skin from seeping into the flesh.

That’s too much information, really, but the point is that it’s a little unusual to find it in a store, which is too bad, because it’s so very tasty that unscrupulous fishmongers stamp out round portions of skate wing to sell as scallops.

I made great skate in England. The fish van came around on Wednesdays to the Portland Arms pub, the back loaded with good fresh seafood from 60 miles away in Lowestoft. Most weeks I picked up something I’d never tried before, then looked through cookbooks and recipe websites to find out how to cook it. Skate is usually always served with black butter in England, which is a typically terrible English name for a vinegary garlic butter reduced to a syrup. For the finale, a spoonful of capers. It’s a mixture that can make anything taste good. I remember thinking “Skate, I’ll do you again.”

But I didn’t find it again until a couple of weeks ago, in K&S market, frozen. You can buy skate fillets, but according to Beyond Salmon, it stays moister when cooked “on the bone,” which this skate was. (It isn’t really a bone, it’s a cartilage section that separates the upper and lower fillet. ) The second secret of skate is that it’s covered with silvery connective tissue, which should ideally be pared off. It’s a bit of a chore — but kind of exciting, because it meant the lonely fish knife, which usually sits in the block with the other misfit rarely used knives, took a leading role in dinner.The third secret of skate is that it should be cooked a little longer than other fish (according to Beyond Salmon) until the edges are crisp. So I made the black butter, dipped the skate into it, and broiled it for longer than you’d think, maybe 4 minutes on each side. Then I turned off the oven but left the skate in the oven another two minutes.

It turned out crisp at the edges, moist everywhere else, and tender enough to pull off the cartilege in shreds. Just as good as the first time. That’s why I love blogs so much — I would never have remembered what to do with it. Hey skate, I’ll do you again. 

Skate in Caper Black Butter

  • 1 skate wing, preferably “on the bone”
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 tablespoons good vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons capers

 

  • Pare the silver connective tissue from the skate. (It looks as if it will peel off but it doesn’t.) Season with salt and pepper.
  • Melt the butter and the olive oil in a skillet and simmer the garlic until fragrant, but don’t let it brown. Add the vinegar and bring to a boil. Boil for a minute or two until the mixture reaches a syrupy consistency. Add the capers.
  • Preheat the broiler. Dip the skate in the butter to coat both sides. Broil for about 4 minutes on one side. Turn and broil the other side for about 4 minutes. Turn off the oven and let the skate stay in the broiler another two minutes. Serve with the remaining caper butter. Makes 2 servings.

 

Carefree Cookless Summer Days

Vacation with the 21 closest members of the immediate family in a mountain house called a “cottage” that holds all of us. Lots of white porches and dirty bare feet and sweaty kids. The moms take the opportunity to drink instead of eat, and the kids scarf junk all day and all night until they collapse in their tracks.

There’s a dining hall on the grounds, run by Nashville’s renowned Emily Frith, offering fresh, small-batch, handmade, knock-your-socks-off food each day. It’s impossible to gather/convince all 21 people to go, but we make a point of eating at least one lunch, and it never disappoints. Every day there’s freshly handmade gazpacho, black beans and yellow rice, and a great salad bar. The hot entree for the day was beefy mac-n-cheese, and the grills were fired up for grilled chicken and burgers.

Sweet Cheeks ate vegetables without being asked, so she earned a Ghirardelli brownie. Every table was full, and since we eat slowly, the brownies were gone by the time we got there. Once we told Emily how disappointed we were, she herself brought us one from the back. She’s got the heart of a servant, and the whisk of Martha Stewart. If you loved her sesame vinaigrette from back in the day, or you’ve heard of its deliciosity, you can buy it at the Chevron at the corner of Page Road and Harding.

Cleanliness is Next to … Impossible

love a clean house as much as anyone. But I don’t love cleaning. It’s like the old Phyllis Diller joke: I hate housecleaning. You vacuum, you dust. And then six months later, you have to do it all again.

(Really, our problem is clutter and started-but-not-finished projects. But those are problems for another blogger to address.)

Because of this personal deficiency, which we might term “laziness,” there are lots of house rules. No food or drink outside the kitchen unless it’s Family Movie Night. Pick up what you set down. Clean up after your projects. No more than 3 pairs of shoes per person on the floor of any given room. No rocks/dirt/bugs, no matter how interesting, may be brought inside. Wetting a big pile of tissues and squeezing them into a wad, then stuffing the wad into a glass of water to see how much more it will absorb — no ma’am, absolutely not. And on and on with the rules — every mom has them. They only halfway work.

I’ve made Strawberry Bars a dozen or more times, yet this time I somehow skipped a step, which was melting the butter for the crumble mixture. It didn’t hold together well and make a compact top layer.

So even though everyone followed the rule with these way too crumb-y Strawberry Bars, the crumbs went everywhere. It was probably time to vacuum anyway. Still, we took the second half of the batch to a neighbor’s outdoor party. I mean, the bars were good, but I wasn’t about to vacuum again.

 

Chef Helena Handbasket, Reporting for Dinner

Not in a long time have I done so much cooking and had so little to show for it as last night. You know the feeling?

It was just a tuna loin and my neighbor’s Watermelon Curry Sauce. On the table in 20 minutes, right? I’ll start it around 6, we’ll eat around 6:30, right? What can possibly go wrong?

By 8, I’d cooked almost everything in the kitchen except for the entree. Instant pudding for dessert. Torta Freddo Gianduia for a more elaborate dessert because, dear friends, you understand, I was desperate for chocolate. Edamame. Cumin-lime slaw. Watermelon Curry Sauce. A hot dog. A baked potato. Carrot sticks.

But not the tuna loin. Because, you see, it was an eye of round that looked like a tuna loin masquerading as an eye of round. It started life as an eye of round from K&S Market. It had been in the freezer for two months and I had forgotten what it was. It had a seafood label. It looked like a big tuna loin. At $7, it seemed a little cheap for tuna loin, but then, K&S has 1 pound of picked lump crabmeat for $10, so why not a $7 tuna loin?

It thawed slowly in the meat drawer, becoming nicely translucent with a promising rich red texture. My neighbor shared a watermelon curry sauce she stumbled across in Belize this year. 

I was about 1 hour into cooking at this point, and had made just about everything else. I had a sit-down for a while. Then I fed Sweet Cheeks (it was pretty late by this time) and my other neighbor dropped by during her evening walk. The tuna was at room temperature, so I unwrapped it and prepared to cut it into steaks.

I haven’t seen a tuna with this much blood, I thought. And then the last wrapping came off and the impostor was unmasked: a beef eye of round. Big Fella offered to go purchase an entree. As you can imagine, he was ready to eat, and despite all the cooking, there was still not one damn thing for grown-ups to eat except a few stray edamame.

Fortunately a pound of thawed squid tubes was in the meat drawer. Squid tubes in the fridge doesn’t really register on the strange-meter in my kitchen, but my neighbor almost fell off the stool. (Note to self when among earthlings: Squid = not normal).

  • We made lime-garlic broiled squid. It was fine but not a good pairing for the Watermelon Curry Sauce, which made me sad. But there’s always a next time, another tilapia or tuna. And fortunately there was Torta Freddo Gianduia to redeem what was left of the day.  

    Watemelon Curry Sauce
    My neighbor never makes it the same way twice and never uses a recipe, so I’m giving the amounts that worked for me.

  • 3 to 5 cups chopped watermelon
  • 1 teaspoon yellow curry powder
  • 2 tablespoons butter

    Puree the watermelon and pour it into a saucepan. Simmer until it is somewhat reduced, about 15 minues. Strain it into a bowl. It will be clear and smell like cooked cucumbers at this point, but have faith. Discard the solids. Clean the pan. Return the watermelon juice to the pan. Simmer until reduced and thickened somewhat. Add the curry powder and mix well. Add the butter and simmer until thick. Makes enough for two tuna steaks.

Torta Freddo Gianduia
This recipe has been in my “to try” notebook for years and years until now. It came from the Simple Cooking newsletter in the mid-1990s. It’s really just nuts and cookies folded into fudge and I imagine a PMS-y Italian cook made it up.

  • 2 1/2 ounces (squares) unsweetened chocolate
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup toasted skinned hazelnuts
  • 4 ounces crushed Danish butter cookies

Grate or chop the chocolate. Combine the egg, yolk, sugar and salt in a mixer or food processor. Beat for about 5 minutes. Stir in the chocolate.
Melt the butter in the top of a double boiler set over simmering water. When it’s all melted, Remove the top of the double boiler. Beat in the chocolate mixture. Return the top of the boiler. Cook the mixture over simmering water, stirring occasionally, until it is thick enough that a spoon dragged through it leaves a trail that lasts for several seconds. Remove the whole thing from the heat. Fold the nuts and cookies into the chocolate. Pour into a springform pan or tart pan with a removable bottom. Refrigerate for 1 hour to firm up. Cut into thin wedges. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Always got milk

It’s possible to successfully store milk in the freezer. You can freeze milk. In 20 years of working with food, cooking and cookbooks, I had never heard or read it. Skeptical barely covers my first reaction, but my British friend said her mom (who lives in a village outside Cambridge) does it all the time. (With dorm-room-scale refrigerators and a market every few blocks, why a Brit would freeze milk is unfathomable, but okay.)

It works, but there are two things to know. First, it takes days and days to thaw, meaning you have to remember that you need it up to 5 days before you need it. Or you can thaw it in the microwave. Second, something happens to the butterfat, like maybe the cell walls burst, and the consistency is a little different. Doesn’t make a difference on cereal or in coffee. We’re not milk drinkers, so I can’t report on the effect of it on fresh milk. Go on and do it and report back.

 

Haute dawgs

Only when I’m cooking professionally do I make a list and go into a store and buy the items to make a recipe. Instead, I usually buy what I think we’ll eat. In practice, that means many dinners are built around whatever foods in the fridge/freezer need to be eaten.

Pinto beans and some Nathan’s hot dogs taking up real estate in the freezer, turkey bacon and a bell pepper reaching their sell-by date and some no-salt-added ketchup purchased by accident — a batch of beanie weenie would clear it all out at once.About 35 years separate me and my last serving of beanie weenie, so I can’t explain why it came to mind. It seemed like an interesting path: study up on 35 years’ worth of technological and flavor-profile improvements to the somewhat lame beanie weenie of my youth. But when I looked for a beanie weenie recipe, I came up empty-handed except for three “combine a can of pork and beans with some sliced hot dogs” on Recipezaar.com. Not what I wanted. I looked in some very likely cookbooks: Fannie Farmer, the Dinah Shore cookbook, Amy Vanderbilt, the old Joy (2 editions), the Good Housekeeping cookbook, Dinner Doctor. Maybe people didn’t make beanie weenie from scratch. I never have before either, it’s true, but I figured someone out there was doing so, especially in these economically trying times.

So I developed a recipe. The trick is to cook the bacon, onion and pepper low and slow, and to make a little roux. Not a big scary roux. You’re just browning a little flour in a little oil so all those flavorful fats and oils form a suspension that binds the beans and the hot dogs so they become one in deliciousness. Pintos and Dawgs were very good, and even Sweet Cheeks only had to be asked twice to eat it. I even wrote down the recipe, so I have a copy of it. And now you do too.

And the plate partner there in the photo is panelle, a crazy good French fry substitute made from chickpea flour and nearly carbless, recipe from my pal Claudia at CookeatFRET.com

Pintos and Dawgs

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 3 slices turkey bacon, chopped
  • 1/2 chopped onion
  • 1/2 chopped green bell pepper
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 5 hot dogs, sliced
  • 1 scant cup chicken bouillon or broth
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 1/4 cup barbecue sauce
  • 2 tablespoons ketchup
  • 2 to 3 cups cooked pinto beans
  • Salt to taste

In a nonstick pan, heat the oil and butter over medium-low heat and saute the bacon until the fat is rendered. Add the bell pepper and onion and saute until very tender and beginning to brown. Sprinkle with the flour and saute for about 10 minutes until browned. Add the hot dogs and saute until browned. The mixture will be sticking to the pan. Add the chicken broth and mix very well. Cook until thickened, about 3 minutes. Add the mustard, barbecue sauce and ketchup and mix well. Cook until thickened and hot. Taste it — the mixture should be tangy but not tomatoey. Add the beans and salt and cook until heated through. Makes 3 to 4 servings.