Cheap Skate: A Traditional Fish Preparation Wins IG this Week
The Cost of Food, Living Our Values, NYC Street Vendors, Plus a Recipe for Skate with Brown Butter and Capers
Issue #45. I didn’t decide what to write about this week, you did, by making my Instagram post about the skate wing I made for myself last week while Nate was out the most popular post of the month. When I started this newsletter, my intention was to have a forum to share full-length recipes for the food I cook for us and post on Instagram. I do not have a “test kitchen.” I do not set out to develop new recipes for Instagram clicks. I just cook good food for me and Nate and our friends and I write about what I’ve done so that you can cook good food for yourself and your friends and family. I waste almost nothing. If I didn’t cook it or we didn’t like it, I don’t write about it. My m.o. hasn’t changed since I started. Thank you for continuing to support this endeavor to build a community of cooks by signing up and/or subscribing to Kitchen Sense. —Mitchell
The other day, Nate was not coming home for dinner—friends were taking him to the opera for a birthday gift. It was Wednesday and so I went to the Union Square Greenmarket in the morning to buy myself a piece of fish. I’ve been feeling for some time that I need to eat more fish. And since Nate doesn’t love many creatures from the sea, I often take the chance when I’m alone to go fishing for something beyond the cod or seabass that he finds most palatable.
The fish monger at the market that day had a selection of familiar fillets: the cod and seabass, of course, but also flounder, monkfish, and swordfish, the last the most popular among the crowd crowding in front of the stall. But my eye was drawn to the pretty fans of boned skate wing left undisturbed in the corner of the ice-filled display case, visions of browned butter and capers in my mind. I asked for a wing. Into a bag it went, then onto the scale. “That will be $2.00.” I couldn’t quite believe the price, nor could I believe that would be enough to fill me up, so I asked for a second piece. The total was $3.50.
Now, I am a big believer in paying more for food if I believe the money is going to the people who produce it and if it is being raised, harvested, caught or what have you in ethical, sustainable ways. Fresh, wild-caught, sustainable fish is usually quite expensive and I don’t mind paying for it. But this skate was ridiculously cheap. I asked the monger why it was less than $9.99 a pound, and she said it is plentiful and not very popular. The swordfish, by contrast, was just shy of $30 a pound.
Spring keeps threatening to arrive and on the way home from the market I noticed bunches of fresh asparagus for $1 on a street cart near our apartment. I grabbed two. Now I realize that those asparagus are likely the very opposite of something raised in an ethical, sustainable way. I suspect the people who picked them in Mexico are not paid a living wage. They certainly aren’t local, which isn’t always a preference of mine, to be honest. But I do think there is value in supporting the vendors who make a living on my corner, rather than the discount supermarkets on the same block, who extract the money they squeeze out of the food system from our neighborhood and give it to their shareholders in faraway places. The 24-hour fruit and vegetable vendors are one of my favorite aspects of New York city life. And we are all very good at rationalizing our behaviors.
(Aside: I’m editing this newsletter while on jury duty at the Manhattan Civil Courthouse. As part of the orientation, I just had to watch a video about implicit bias from the Perception Institute, whose director articulated the organization’s work as conducting research about why it is difficult to align our behaviors with our values, which intrigues me for obvious reasons regarding food-system change.)
By the time dinner came around I made quick work of the fish, seasoning it, dredging it in flour, sautéing it, and making a pan sauce with some dry Riesling, capers, browned butter, a squirt of lemon juice, and a sprinkle of chopped parsley. I peeled and steamed the asparagus and poured some of the same sauce on the spears. The meal was delicious. And if the popularity of my post on Instagram is any indication, the fish monger ought to find a way to ship her skate nation-wide. That would raise the price, for sure, but this fish and its monger deserves it.
Here's the recipe for a quick, delicious, and very inexpensive dish of sustainable fish. Of course, you can use any thin, white fish fillet for this dish, but skate is classic and delicious, and its meaty, juice texture and delicate flavor is perfect match. Plus, its price can’t be beat.
But the way, Nate loved the opera, La Bohème. Looking at the photo on Instagram later that night and the number of “likes” it received, he proclaimed “I like skate!” So I’ll put this recipe into our rotation from now on.
RECIPE: Skate with Browned Butter and Capers
2 tablespoons capers, preferably in salt, rather than brine
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
2 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil
6 ounces boned skate wing, or other meaty white fish fillet
Freshly ground black pepper
Smoked paprika (pimentón)
½ shallot, minced
1/3 cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blan, Chardonnay, or Riesling
½ lemon, plus more for garnish
Handful chopped parsley
If using salted capers, place them in a small bowl and cover with warm water to soak. If using capers in brine, just drain them. In a large, nonstick pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Cook the butter until the foaming and sizzling stops and the milk solids begin to brown, 4 or 5 minutes. You should smell a distinct nutty flavor. Be careful not to burn it. Immediately pour the browned butter into a small bowl. Use a rubber spatula to get out every last drop. Place the bowl in the fridge. Return the pan to the stove and add the vegetable oil.
Meanwhile, lay the skate out on a large plate and pat dry with paper towel. Season both sides with salt, pepper, and smoked paprika, and then dust lightly with flour to coat. Tap or brush off any excess flour. Raise the heat under the pan with the oil in it to medium-high and, once quite hot, add the skate, laying it flat in the pan. Sear the first side until nicely browned around the edges, 3 or 4 minutes. With a large spatula, carefully flip to sear the second side, another 3 or 4 minutes. Carefully lift the fish out of the pan and set on a clean plate while you make the sauce. Pour off the cooking oil and discard, but do not wipe the pan clean.
Return the pan to heat. Add the remaining tablespoon of butter and minced shallot and cook for a minute or so until the shallot softens. Add the wine, and using your rubber spatula or a wooden spoon, scrape any browned bits off the bottom of the pan as the wine boils. Drain the capers and add to the pan. When the wine has reduced by about 1/2, get the browned butter from the fridge and add it to the pan, swirling around to incorporate. Add a squirt of lemon juice, a pinch of salt, and most but not all of your chopped parsley. Carefully return the skate to the pan just to warm it in the sauce. Transfer the fillets to a dinner plate and pour the sauce on top. (If serving with steamed asparagus or another vegetable, pour some of the sauce on that, too!) Sprinkle with the remaining parsley and a fresh grind or two of black pepper. Serve with a wedge of lemon.