Although skate seems to be on sale all year long, its official season started in the middle of last month and will continue until October — so we have plenty of time to try it at its best.
Skate is the most neglected high quality white fish at the market. Every time I go to the Mercat d’Olivar, I see lovely pink wings of skate beautifully laid out and ready for cooking. but I don’t actually know anyone who cooks it.
I seldom see it on restaurant menus and it doesn’t feature very much in Spanish regional cooking. Even so, someone must be buying it (at about €8 a kilo) but it’s no one I know and certainly not any of the restaurants I frequent, although I have on occasion seen it at Toque in Calle Federico García Lorca and Casa Maruka in Calle Reina María Cristina.
As this is the start of the season you’ll find some small wings, which are my favourites. At the fish counter of El Corte Inglés in Avda Jaime III, they sometimes sell larger wings with a piece of the body attached.
This is ideal when you are making a fish soup or a rice dish that features skate, because the body part is ideal for making stock. I’ve never seen it sold like that at the Mercat d’Olivar. The best stall at the Mercat d’Olivar for skate is Pescados Beatriz, which is in the aisle on the left as you go into the fish market from the fruit and veg section.
Skate, which is called raya in Spanish, is one of the cartilaginous Selachians — so it doesn’t have sharp bones. Skate’s ribbed wings consist of strips of cartilage with delicate white flesh on either side. If the skate is a small one, the cartilage is soft enough to be eaten. On the bigger specimens, the flesh is scraped off the cooked wings.
When fillets of skate are needed, a knife with a sharp point soon frees the uncooked flesh from the cartilage, although it needs a bit practice before you can do it quickly. The skate I had at Casa Maruka were little fillets that were batter-fried in deep oil. They were very much a 10-rated dish.
There are several specimens of skate and some make better eating than others. Fortunately for consumers, the most abundant one is also the best. Its scientific name is Raja clavata — raya de clavos in Spanish and thornback ray in English.
This specimen ranges from the warm Mediterranean to the coldest parts of the Atlantic around Norway and Iceland. The thornback gets its name because its back is studded with little bone-like knobs. The skin is usually mottled grey or fawn. But the colour of the skin is of academic interest only only. Unless you get to the Mercat d’Olivar very early, you will never see the skin — one of the fisherwomen’s first chores is to strip it off with a pair of pliers.
I once went to the market first thing in the morning and saw Beatriz skin a couple of skate. She has been doing it for years and is a total expert: with small cut here and another over there, Beatriz goes to work with the pliers and skins the skate as easily as we peel a banana. I got a great kick out of seeing her do it.
The skate is a kite-shaped fish with a long tail, which it uses most effectively to fight off predators. Fishermen cut off the tail as soon as the skate is landed because it can lash out with it and cause considerable damage to the rest of the catch.
Most fishermen throw the tail back into the sea so that scavenger fish and shellfish can eat it. But in the past, pieces were cut from the thick end of the tail and sold as skate knobs in England and joues de raie (skate cheeks) in France. I have never tasted these tail bits but they are said to be delicious when coated with flour and sautéed in butter.
Skate is unique in that it must be kept for two or three days in the fridge to allow natural chemical changes to take place. This includes the loss of urea which gives the fish an ammonia-like smell that many people find off-putting: they think the fish is far from fresh. But that’s not the case and this smell disappears as soon as the skate is cooked.
The lovely pink flesh of the skate could hardly taste anything less than superb. This fish has a ferocious appetite and eats only the best kinds of fish and shellfish. In the stomach of a large one, fishermen found two soles, a lobster, two mackerel, a skate more than three feet long and a salmon. Little wonder its white flesh is so delicate and tasty.
The busy housewife should find skate very much to her liking because it always comes skinned and ready to use. There is absolutely no cleaning involved, the messy side of cooking fish that discourages so many people.
As always with fish, the simple cooking methods are best. One of the most delicious ways of doing skate is to dip it in flour, shake off the excess, and sauté it in clarified butter or a mixture of butter and olive oil.
Small wings need about three minutes on each side or until the flesh loses its transparent look and starts to come away from the cartilage. It can be eaten as it comes from the frying pan.
When using thicker skate wings, some cooks like to poach them before finishing them off in butter. If sautéing the bigger wings directly in butter, allow about 10 minutes on each side over a moderate heat.
Skate is easy peasy when done in the French classic au beurre noir style — in black butter, although the butter isn’t black but of a pale chestnut colour. Do small wings as described above and when cooked through transfer them to hot plates.
Add two tablespoons of old sherry vinegar to the frying pan and a heaped tablespoon of the best small capers. Let the capers and the vinegar bubble gently for a minute and spoon the sauce over the skate wings. Serve with boiled Majorcan patató drizzled with butter and sprinkled with finely chopped parsley.
Basque cooks like to marinate skate before deep-frying it and use a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, bay leaf, cloves and parsley. The wings are kept in this marinade for about three hours and are then dipped in a thin bechamel sauce, coated with breadcrumbs, and deep-fried in very hot oil. The wings are sprinkled with finely chopped parsley before being served.
Skate can also be batter-fried. Cut the wings into narrow strips or small wedges, dip them in your usual batter and deep-fry in very hot oil. If you use the smallest wings for batter-frying, the cartilage will be soft enough to eat.
Some Majorcan housewives of the old school serve skate with young fresh peas and they also do a summer tumbet with wedges of fried skate, another celestial way of doing it.
When using vinegar for skate and other fine fish, you should always get the dearest one you can afford. Use a few drops of sherry vinegar aged in oak, or genuine Italian balsamic vinegar, and the results will be heavenly.