This showstopper's elegance is in the simplicity of every bright, buttery bite.
If you've never tasted or cooked skate, it's time to check that off your bucket list! Skate is a delicious, mild, white fish in the ray family with fins so large that they look like wings. Fisherman typically cut the "wings" off at sea, which have cartilage that runs through their centers. When filleted, each wing yields two pieces of fish with delicately scalloped edges. You can ask your local purveyor to filet the skate for you, or you can do it yourself. It is remarkably easier than it looks...it's all about technique, not torture! Ponderosa lemons are a hybrid of pomelos and citron, the fruit of a mostly ornamental tree. The majesty of a Ponderosa lemon is in its sheer size, with a flavor and acidity almost exactly like a standard lemon (which certainly can be used in its place).
Equipment: cutting board; chef’s knife or fish knife; small serrated or utility knife (optional); dry measuring cup; large shallow bowl; measuring spoons; large nonstick sauté pan; fish spatula
2 skate wings, or 4 skate wing filets
1 cup all-purpose flour
kosher salt freshly and freshly ground black pepper
5-8 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
1 Ponderosa lemon (or 2 regular lemons), thinly sliced crosswise
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
ILOC tip: dredging the fish in flour helps to prevent it from sticking to the pan and to create an even and crisp sear on the flesh. A gluten-free flour or flour blend can be used in its place, if need be.
1. First, filet the skate wings if you have purchased them whole. Place the skate wing on a clean, stable work service. Using the tip of a fish or carving knife, make a small cut across the top of the cartilage, separating the flesh from the cartilage. Once you have flesh separated from the cartilage that you can pinch the end, continue to cut the flesh from the cartilage, holding the filleted fish with one hand while you move the knife back and forth across the cartilage with the other hand. The knife's edge should be as parallel to the cartilage as possible, with the knife blade pressing flat against the cartilage below the flesh. Lift the first filet from the cartilage and turn over the wing to repeat the process on the other side. You should be left with a translucent piece of cartilage to discard and four lovely filets to pan fry.
2. Generously season all four pieces of skate with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper on both sides. In a shallow bowl filled with a cup of flour, dredge each piece of fish in the flour, shaking off excess. Set aside.
3. Heat a large nonstick sauté pan over medium heat. Add enough oil to the pan so that there is a thin veil across the surface, swirling to coat. Once the oil is hot enough (shimmering but NOT smoking), add two pieces of skate. Cook for 3 minutes or until golden brown, then carefully flip using a fish spatula. Cook for another 2-3 minutes, Remove the fish from the sauté pan and add additional oil if needed. Repeat with remaining two pieces of skate. Set aside.
ILOC tip: skate can be cumbersome to turn or remove from the pan, given its length and delicate flesh. The proper tool of a fish spatula is essential to being set up for success. If the filet happens to break into two pieces, do not fret. You will get the chance to hide this minor mishap by plating the fish pieces like a puzzle, one next to the other. It's all about technique, not torture!
4. Return the sauté pan over medium-high heat and add the lemon slices. Cook one minute per side or just long enough to release some of the juice and caramelize the flesh and pith.
"The lemon slices are meant to be eaten in their entirety, not just to flavor the sauce. Caramelizing them in butter renders them tender and less bitter, while retaining their distinct, bright citrus flavor."
5. Add a stick of butter to the pan and reduce the temperature to medium. As the butter quickly melts, swirl to coat the lemon slices while gently scraping the bottom of the pan. Once the milk solids in the butter toast and turn golden brown, remove the pan from the heat.
"Usually butter is added to a cold pan to control the melting and thus prevent browning. In this recipe, brown butter is the goal. Also, there is no reason to dirty another pan, especially with the added benefit of the fish flavor, lemon, and butter building to make a stellar pan sauce."
6. Serve 1-2 filets per person topped with lemon slices. Spoon the warm brown butter sauce over the fish and sprinkle with additional kosher salt. Serve immediately.
Makes 2-4 servings.