I ate skate the other night. You might call what I ate "ray," or even the French, "raie." I call it a pretty good meal.
The skate was swimming in a rich sauce made with black butter and capers that would make most anything taste good. The texture of the fillet of ray, more stringy than flaky, took a little getting used to. But, overall, it was a pleasing dish.
It turns out that ray and I are old friends. I once talked strangers into eating raie meuniere, skate that was lightly floured and fried in butter. That was several years ago during my three-hour career as a waiter at Jean Claude's, a Harborplace restaurant that went out of business some time after the owners let me work there.
While I had pushed skate as the special of the day, I had never eaten it until the other night. That move was prompted by a note from Eve Devine, of Faidley's seafood operation in Baltimore's Lexington Market. It is a family operation presided over by Eve's father, Bill Devine, a cigar-chomping, silver-haired patriarch who calls wild rockfish "God-made rockfish" and calls two of his daughters, Eve and Damye, "the kids," even though they are adults.
Back in November, "the kids" ordered a boatload of skate. Much to the surprise of their father, people bought it.
"Europeans love it," Eve Devine told me as I was buying my skate. This news did not reassure me. It is my experience that Europeans eat most anything. Even eel!
What did comfort me was that the skate was local and inexpensive -- my half-pound fillet cost about $2.50. It had been caught in the Chesapeake Bay. Unlike traditional Chesapeake Bay fare, such as wild rockfish and oysters, skate is plentiful. So, if buying a skate helps a Chesapeake Bay waterman, so much the better.
The skate came in two forms, wings and fillets, both frozen. The wings, the appendages that the skate flaps as it moves through the water, looked somewhat like the wings on a B-47 bomber. They were big, powerful and dark. They also had to be skinned. This required poaching, then peeling. I called this the wallpaper treatment, because it reminded me of the rigmarole you go through to remove wallpaper.
The wings were half the price of the fillets, but the fillets had already been skinned. Moreover, the pinkish, white flesh of the fillets looked like white fish, something than would even please Mrs. Paul.
I didn't have any luck looking for ray recipes in totally American cookbooks. But I did find a recipe in "Cooking with Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey" (Times Books, $18). Even though Pierre now has a cooking show on American television, he is really French.
Following Pierre's instructions, the skate fillet was put in a heavy saucepan and given a bubbling bath. Into the bath went 1/2 cup of white vinegar, 2 bay leaves, 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves, 1 teaspoon crushed black peppercorns and enough water to cover the skate. While still sitting in the herby bath, the skate was brought to a gently rolling boil, then the heat was turned off. The skate was removed from the liquid, placed on a plate and topped with the butter sauce. The sauce was made with a stick of butter that had been swirled around in a hot skillet until the butter turned a very dark brown . Then 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar and 4 tablespoons of capers were dropped into the skillet. The skillet full of butter, capers and vinegar was shaken, then poured over the skate.
Not only did I like the taste of skate, but also I no longer feared it. I began to read more about it in "Larousse Gastronomique" (Crown, $50), a heavyweight culinary source book. The book gives several ways to fix skate, including soaking chunks of skinned skate in milk, rolling them in flour and frying them. This I called "ray's nuggets."
And there was a recipe I called "three fruits in a tub," where you poach the skate in a salt-water mixture containing a lemon, an apple and a shallot, which, I am told, is considered a fruit in Europe even though it really is an onion.
I may try these recipes. But I am not going to make the next step in skate appreciation. I am not going to eat skate livers.
"Larousse Gastronomique" also had recipes instructing those who want to know what to do with skate livers. One, which I dubbed "Granny goes skating," called for poaching the skate liver in court-bouillon, then serving it sliced over a bed of cooked Granny Smith Apples.
Not being a liver-lover, I plan to steer clear of such recipes. My avoidance of skate livers may hurt me professionally. It will mark me as a stick-to-the-fillet, flatlander type of eater. Skate livers, I am told, are considered a delicacy. Especially by gourmets who live in Europe.