So it’s been a while since I posted anything and without going into too much detail, it was health related. I’m getting better, but cooking, let alone writing about it afterwards, has been difficult. As I attempt to get back into the game I’m going to try something new: skate cheeks. I got a package of frozen skate cheeks from Red’s Best a while back and now is the time to try them out.
I’ve had skate wings plenty of times, same with cod cheeks, but never skate cheeks. Honestly, I didn’t know skate had cheeks. That was part of the allure when I ordered them online from Red’s Best. I have enjoyed everything I’ve tried from this company so far, and I expect the skate cheeks – skate knobs for the UK visitors – will be no different. Ask any fisherman, you can’t go wrong with cheeks…
Skate As Seafood
Skate species are primarily harvested in New England waters, but they range from about the Carolinas to the Canadian Maritimes. In the US, several skate species are managed by NOAA/NMFS, but only two are primarily harvested commercially. The winter skate (Leucoraja ocellata) is harvested for human consumption, while the little skate (Leucoraja erinacea) is caught for the bait fishery. Apparently those small thorny skates (Amblyraja radiata) that end up in lobster traps or on the hooks of party boats are not harvested. Which is probably why I’ve never seen a skate with cheeks.
2019 stock assessments by NOAA show the population of winter skate is healthy and is being harvested sustainably. For the most part, skate is caught by otter trawl and gillnet while targeting other species that inhabit the same grounds.
Skate has been popular in countries such as France and the UK for a very long time, but here in the US most consumers have never encountered skate at the market or restaurants. However that is changing as skate is becoming more popular. This is after decades of being seen as a low quality substitute for scallops. I’ve heard countless stories of “scallops” being stamped out from the wings of big skates. There is nothing low quality about skate itself: You are what you eat after all, and a diet rich in shellfish gives skates a similar taste, but often for a lower price.
Red’s Best Skate Cheeks
My one pound package of frozen skate cheeks has been in my freezer far too long. However with the cheeks solidly frozen and vacuum sealed I had no doubt they were fine.
These skate cheeks were caught by the crew of the F/V CAROL MARIE, a gillnetter out of Chatham, Massachusetts. I like how you can trace your dinner back to the folks that caught it, and even happier that I’m seeing more of this. It humanizes an industry that the general public knows little about and helps consumers connect the dots between fishing boat to plate.
Sure enough, when I open the sealed package the skate cheeks both looked and smelled fresh. No trace of ammonia, which means these skates were handled quickly and correctly. However I learned that you should check over your skate cheeks for any small bits of cartilage. Like all shark relatives, skates do not have true bones, only cartilage, but biting down on a piece would not be pleasant. If you find any hard pieces on your skate cheeks, take your kitchen shears and just trim it off.
When I looked for recipes online, most of what I found was to treat the skate cheeks simply – they have plenty of flavor on their own. Pan searing seemed to be the way to go, either straight up or after a light dusting in flower. I opted for the more basic of the two so I could get the straight, unadulterated taste of the skate cheeks on my first try.
Pan Seared Skate Cheeks
Not much of a recipe here: Rinse and pat dry your skate cheeks and season with salt and pepper. Get a pan medium-hot with olive oil and butter. Sear the cheeks a few minutes on each side until golden brown. Do them in batches and don’t overcrowd the pan like I did. I would have got a much nicer coloring if I wasn’t in such a rush. I also found the skate cheeks to be delicate, so be careful when turning them.
As the skate cheeks cooked the aroma filled the house and reminded me of lobster. My first thought was I was in for a treat. My second thought: I’m glad my wife and the rest of the family are away! If your significant other eats crab or lobster this will not be a problem. I served the skate cheeks with a mix of sauteed Tuscan kale and fairytale eggplants.
When I took that first bite the taste and the texture was incredibly similar to crab. It was very tasty, buttery and rich. The texture, not quite like crab meat, but so close. The taste was so close to crab that it took me aback, I was expecting more of a scallop like flavor. Like I said before, you are what you eat and these skates must have been feasting on crab. Hopefully it was invasive green crabs that threaten our clam industry. I really liked how the richness of the skate cheeks was cut by the sauteed kale and tiny eggplants, allowing me to eat nearly the entire pound of cheeks.
I’m really glad I tried skate cheeks, and with Red’s Best I know I’m getting top quality that also benefits our local fishermen. If you like scallops, crab or lobster I suggest giving skate cheeks a try for a change of pace. They are familiar, but just different enough to make it interesting.