With Skate a No-Show, Halibut Does a Star Turn

By Mark Bittman, NYtimes

THERE was a time here in the Northeast when surf-casting fishermen flung skate on the beach to die. Stupid, yes, and even tragic, but it was considered a “bait stealer,” and got in the way of catching the more challenging and beloved striper.

Then we discovered that skate was good to eat — at least as good as striper — and within a span of just a few years, skate became scarce. Not only is it no longer littering Atlantic beaches, but it is also no longer stealing bait. In fact, it is no longer around much, and stores like Whole Foods are pledging not to carry the fish until the stocks recover.

So it didn’t surprise me when, right after thanking me for teaching her how to prepare skate, a colleague complained that she could no longer in good conscience eat it. And in the way things sometimes happen, I found myself in an odd kind of skate-cooking situation — sans skate — the next night. I was in a poorly equipped kitchen, one that had only a stove, refrigerator, sink, cutting board, strainer, tongs, boning knife, plastic mandoline, 10-inch skillet, two-quart saucepan, olive oil, one lemon, cucumber, celery, whole wheat couscous, a tiny jar with some capers packed in vinegar, garlic — and a gorgeous piece of halibut. Salt and pepper, yes, but that was really it. Oh, and three plates and silverware.

Each of these things came into play, in odd fashion. To use the mandoline and the lemon and oil to make a salad of the cucumber and celery was a no-brainer. The couscous/halibut concoction was a little more challenging, because I wanted both of them to be skillet-ized, and unless I wanted halibut steamed on a bed of couscous (which doesn’t sound that bad, really) the work would have to be sequential.

So I cooked the couscous in the pot, and then drained it. I sautéed it in olive oil and garlic (mined with a boning knife, a real pain), until it dried out a bit; then poured it onto a plate and kept it warm while I turned to the halibut.

I must say there is something wonderfully and intrinsically easy about a thick piece of fish: you want to cook it through, unlike most meat, so you can sear it really, really hard on both sides, fearlessly, until it browns so beautifully you’ll impress yourself. At that point, it’s probably done (a thin-bladed knife will meet little resistance when you poke it in there), and it can be kept warm for a few minutes. That’s what I did, transferring the fish to one of my two remaining plates.

Into the leftover pan juices, I splashed a little more olive oil and the capers with their vinegar. (Butter, I admit, would have been better — or at least more in the spirit of skate au beurre noir — but I had no butter.) I dressed the fish with the sauce and added a squeeze of lemon juice for freshness. I served my companion on the remaining unsullied plate; I ate from the one with the remaining halibut. No, it wasn’t skate, but it was a fish you could eat in decent conscience, and it was delicious.

Recipe: Halibut, Skate Style

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