Serendipity struck twice for me this week. First, I learned that the James Beard House, which is just a block from where I live, was having a big cookbook sale. I went to it and came home with five books: two at $1, two at $5, and one at $10 – the “expensive” one a mint-condition English translation of La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange. Coincidentally, this monumental French cooking classic from 1927, about which I’d been curious for a long time, was the original source of the recipe I wrote about here just last week.
The second bit of serendipity was finding some particularly good-looking skate at my fish market. Though skate is hardly an American staple, it’s available often throughout the year, and it’s always a treat for Tom and me – especially in the classic French preparation of raie au beurre noir. So I brought home one of these fresh, plump skate wings.
The recipe I usually use for this dish is from La Cuisine de France, by Mapie, Countess of Toulouse-Lautrec. But now with Madame de Saint-Ange at hand, I thought I’d try her version, which is quite a bit different. I’m glad I did, because it made the best skate I’ve ever eaten.
Madame’s general instructions for purchasing and preparing skate were very interesting, though more detailed than I needed, because the skate we get now is already carefully selected and cleaned. The court bouillon in which she poaches her skate is richer than in any other recipe I’ve seen. Instead of using plain salted water, as most do, she adds onion, vinegar, thyme, bay leaf, and – no kidding – leafless parsley stems. (I had only chopped parsley in the freezer, so I omitted that last item.)
Also, Madame cooks skate longer than any other recipes I’ve seen: 25 minutes, as opposed to the more common 10. I guess that extra time is to infuse the flavorings into the fish, which it certainly did.
When the skate was done I transferred it to a platter, sprinkled it with salt and pepper, and kept it warm in the oven while I browned the butter. After pouring that over the skate, I reduced some vinegar in the butter’s pan and poured that on too. Madame doesn’t use capers in her beurre noir, as most other recipes do, but her recipe doesn’t need them.
It didn’t make a gorgeous dish (so few of my kitchen creations do!); if I’d thought to cut the skate wing in pieces before cooking, it might not have gotten so ragged from maneuvering it out of the poaching pan. But it was truly delicious, and the little boiled potatoes and brussels sprouts that I served alongside adored the black butter sauce too. An excellent dinner plate!
NB: This was a big wing, and because skate is rich, we had generous leftovers. Two days later, they made a very tasty little appetizer, served on a bed of lettuce and dressed with a mayonnaise-mustard-horseradish-caper-cornichon sauce.