Saturday 3 May 2014

Pan-fried Skate Wing with Warm Cactus Salad (Ensalada Nopales)

I came up with this dish as a kind of mishmash of different ingredients that I had, two of which I had never cooked or eaten before: skate fish and cactus. I ended up enjoying both of them so I'm really excited to share this post today. 

Let's start with skate fish. Skates are a flat, aerodynamic, cartilaginous fish that belong to the ray family (related to sharks). The most commonly known species of ray is likely the stingray. Stingrays and skates are quite similar, especially in appearance. Some of the main differences are the tail (stingrays have barbed whip-like tails where skates have thicker tails and no barbed spines), teeth (stingray teeth are generally larger) and habitat (stingrays are more commonly found in more shallow waters where skates generally stay in deeper water). Coincidentally enough, the day before I prepared this dish I was at Ripley's Aquarium of Canada where they have a variety of rays on display. Below are a couple of photos that I took of some of the rays they have so you can get an idea of what a skate fish generally look like.

Pretty cool, huh? They use their big, kite-shaped wings to glide through the water. Each wing is filled with rows and rows of cartilage but there is also quite a bit of meat on them. When cooked properly, the meat very effortlessly pulls away from the cartilage using a fork. The meat is whitish-pink in colour and the flavour is very mild (almost "chickeny"). A common French preparation of skate wings are to dredge in seasoned flour, fry in browned butter and then add fresh parsley, lemon and capers. I went with a more Central American flavour profile to accommodate the cactus that I paired it with. I'm very pleased that my first experience with skate worked out very well, but I have to pass on a warning that was issued to me. I've been told that if skate isn't fresh enough or if it is overcooked it can exude a foul, funky smell (one source likened the stench to ammonia). Whenever cooking any kind of seafood it is important to make sure it's fresh and not to overcook it, but beware that there could be an extra consequence with skate as it the smell could disrupt your appetite. Luckily I did not have that problem whatsoever. This was absolutely delicious so if you ensure that your skate wing is fresh and follow the instructions in this recipe you should share the same success. 

When I bought my skate wing from my fish monger, it came like this:


As you can see, the skin has been removed. The outer edge of the wing had already been trimmed by the fish monger, but you may find it with a kind of fringe around the outside. There is very little meat on the ends so for presentation's sake, you may choose to trim the fringe off with a pair of kitchen shears. 

There was also a very thick piece of cartilage from where the wing once connected to the rest of the body. By look and feel you can get a clear indication of its size and shape, but I recommend cutting that part off. 

You will need a very sharp knife to do that. Please be careful as not to injure yourself. If you feel a point where there is too much resistence with the knife, simply tap the broad side of the blade with a rolling pin. That should force it through without you having to saw away at it, dulling your blade and ruining the presentation of the skate. Here is a shot of my skate wing after I had chopped the thick "boney" part off.

Before proceeding, rinse your skate wing off in cold water and then dry thoroughly with paper towel. 

Now let's talk a little about cactus. You read that right. We are actually preparing cactus as in the spiky, water-retaining plant commonly found in the desert areas of the Americas, Africa and in some parts of Asia. More specifically, the cactus leaves (or "pads") are from the same variety of cactus from which cactus pears (delicious!) are harvested. Cactus is a common Central American ingredient, particularly in Mexico. It is cooked and then usually added to tortillas, scrambled with eggs, puréed into soup or prepared in a warm salad as we're doing today. The flavour is mild and kind of similar to green bell pepper. In Spanish, cacti are called "nopales" (no-pah-lehs) and salad is called "ensalada" (en-sah-lah-dah). In Spanish the adjective generally follows the noun so cactus salad is "ensalada nopales".

Because of cacti's expert ability to retain water, they do produce a somewhat slimy texture called "babas" when they're cooked (similar to okra). Cactus will be quite slimy when overcooked but if it is boiled just enough it's not so bad. Cactus is usually boiled as in this process the babas is extracted into the water and creates a foam. While the cactus boils, skim away the foam as required (it could cause the liquid to foam over otherwise). After the cactus is drained it will be a softened, ready-to-eat vegetable.

Let's go over how to prep cactus leaves for salad. Here is what they look like to start off with.


Most of the spikes have been removed but there will still be tips attached from where the spikes once were. Similar to apples and avocado, cactus oxidizes when exposed to the air and turns brown rather quickly. That's why the spikes are not removed completely before packaging and shipping all the way up here in Canada to satisfy the few people who eat it. All you want to do is use a knife to trim the edges of the cactus leaves and then lay the blade of the knife against the pad and shimmy it down to shave off the tips. It's a very quick and easy process. Then it's just a matter of slicing them into 1 cm strips. One of the cactus leaves was larger than the other two so I had to halve some of the longer strips that it produced, 

Now that we know how to prep skate and cactus let's get on with the recipe! I just cooked this for myself so I only bothered with one skate wing but the cactus salad is enough for two if not three people. So feel free to double or triple as required for the skate recipe. Portion out the salad before you add the dressing or the cilantro. If you have extra, save it in the fridge and use it to scramble with eggs the next day. Yum! 


1 skate wing, prepped (as above)
2 tbsp of oil suitable for frying
2 tbsp flour
1 tsp chili powder
3 cactus leaves/pads, prepped (as above)
2 roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped
2 radishes, thinly sliced
1 Serrano chili, seeded and thinly sliced 
1/2 red onion, 1 quarter left whole and 1 quarter finely diced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped
1/2 lime (juice only)
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Fill a pot with water, add a generous pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Add 1/4 red onion and the garlic cloves. Allow to boil for a minute.


Add the prepped cactus. Allow to cook for 15 minutes, skimming away the foam as required.

After 15 minutes, drain the cactus and remove the red onion and garlic cloves.  Allow to cool for a couple of minutes.

In a large bowl, mix the cooked cactus with the chopped tomato, diced red onion, and thinly sliced radish and Serrano chili. If there will be any left overs, reserve the excess in the fridge. For the remaining salad, add the fresh cilantro, season with salt and pepper and dress with the juice from half a lime and 2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil. Toss.

To prepare the skate wing, combine the flour and chili powder and season liberally with salt and pepper. Then mix thoroughly. Dredged the wing on both sides in the flour mixture.

Over medium-high heat, add 2 tbsp of oil into a pan. Add the skate wing to the pan. It should sizzle right away, otherwise your oil isn't hot enough yet. Once the skate wing is in the pan, reduce the heat to medium and let it cook undisturbed for 4-5 minutes.

Use a pair of tongs to flip the skate over and allow the other side to cook for another 4-5 minutes, undisturbed. 

Remove the skate from the pan and allow it to rest for 2 or 3 minutes before plating.

You could enjoy this dish with an extra squeeze of lime or lemon juice if you prefer. I had some chipotle mayo (that I didn't make) on hand so I ate it with that. Overall this dish was very simple and didn't take much time at all to put together. It's up to you if you'd like to recreate it or maybe make just the cactus salad and serve it with something else or just the skate and serve that with something else. If you're not going to do a Mexican flavour profile with the skate then you can omit the chili powder from the seasoned flour. You could build on the salad too. While I was eating it I thought that some kernels of grilled corn would have added some colour, sweetness and texture to the salad. There's one idea. It's also not uncommon to add grated cheese to a cactus salad. Personally, I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to fish and cheese together (in most cases) so I didn't do that here. 

I wanted to show you a shot of the skate as I was eating it to give you an idea of what it looks like if you're unfamiliar. As you can see, just a few gentle scrapes of your fork will pull the meat right off those rows of cartilage. When exposed, the cartilage almost resembles clear, plasticky, miniature bamboo. It may look like a large piece of fish but the amount of meat when removed from the cartilage is just right. It's so tender and mild. A real experience!


I hope you enjoyed this post. Stay tuned because I already have a couple of other projects in the works for delicious dishes showcasing other corners of the globe. You won't want to miss it!


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