The search for sustainable skate, or How I became obsessed with the concept of suburban sous vide

by Ben on April 13, 2010 · 2 comments

in Essay, Index, Sous Vide

I sometimes find myself wandering off the deep end. My wife now hears me thinking out loud, and offers, with an air of mild concern: “Sometimes?

It all started weeks ago, when I began to go through what I fully expected to be a trivial exercise of selecting any of a number of vivid, food-related memories to attempt to recreate and write about. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be recounting the first time I had eaten skate. OK, let’s see … Kabab Café in Astoria … Big flavors … Chef Ali El Sayed’s lyrical description of ingredients … Got it! I was excited and energized. It had been years since I had last eaten it. Summer ’01, at the dearly-departed Patois on Smith St. (Brooklyn), classic preparation—pan-fried with a beurre noire. This was going to be good. I just needed to source the wings. I knew that skate wings weren’t expensive, but that they might be tricky to find. So I started researching specialty markets in the Bay Area, particularly ones that consciously support sustainable fishing practices. Unfortunately, the search terms “sustainable,” “seafood” and “skate” yielded discouraging results. According to The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch:

Previously discarded as “trash fish”, skate has become an increasingly important fishery as the populations of other bottom-dwelling fish (such as cod and haddock) have declined. As a result, several skate species in the Northeast are overfished or in serious decline. Skates, like their close relatives, the sharks, are highly vulnerable to overfishing since they grow slowly and are long-lived.

In addition, the majority of skates are caught using otter trawl gear, which causes considerable damage to seafloor habitats. Otter trawling is also indiscriminate, catching both intended and unintended species. These unintended species are unmarketable, illegal or undersized fish that are subsequently discarded dead or dying as unwanted catch.

Rating: Avoid

Well, that certainly is a pisser.  But I’ll admit that aside from carrying around their convenient, wallet-sized recommendation cards, I really don’t know much about Seafood Watch. What if they’re just a bunch of raving lunatics? I did a bit more digging. I did find that Seafood Watch is considered to be one of the more conservative voices, and that they are often criticized by (wait for it …) industry organizations. OK, that tells me absolutely nothing. Ultimately, my decision-making calculus goes something like this: Seafood Watch and The Monterey Bay Aquarium are very well respected by scientists. Though I haven’t examined the data myself, they do make arguments for their recommendation. I have not heard argument #1 on the other side. (And not for lack of looking. Remember that I really want to hear the other side). So by presumption, I am forced to play it safe and assume that Seafood Watch knows what they’re talking about.

So basically, the upshot of all this is: Crap! Stupid otter trawlers! What about my food moment? What about my damn blog post? What am I going to do, post a rambling, recipe-free essay about sustainable skate? Somewhere in midst of my man-sized hissy fit, I stumbled upon the apparently ingenious, yet contextually absurd notion of making “imitation skate.” I’ve heard several times (always anecdotally) that people used to make imitation scallops out of skate wing. That idea always seemed strange to me, since the textures aren’t really alike. But if it’s true, what about trying the inverse transformation? What could possibly be better than reproducing a protein that costs $2.99/lb out of ingredients costing at least 5 times that?

I immediately consulted my sister, who, as you may have gathered from my previous posts, knows everything about cooking.  Her response:

You are getting into the realm of molecular cooking, which is outside my knowledge comfort level.

We both had the same first guess (which in retrospect, was not a good guess): cook the scallops sous vide. Sous vide? Like many of you, the first I had ever heard of this technique was when Hung Huynh used it in Season 3 of Top Chef, presumably after going all kinds of tasmanian devil on a chicken. Since then, it’s made a regular appearance on the show, with mixed results. Sous vide is French for “under vacuum,” and describes a technique in which food is vacuum sealed and cooked in a water bath for a long time at relatively low temperature. On TV, this usually involves an immersion circulator (pictured above, in a gorgeous photo by Deborah Jones), a piece of lab equipment that can reliably maintain water temperature within a very narrow range (+/- 0.1 C). The technique has a very simple premise, which is that food will not be overcooked if you do not raise the temperature beyond the point at which you want it done. Therefore, you can hold the food at this temperature for a long-ass time, if you want to. Creative chefs have applied the technique to coax flavors and textures out of their food that are ordinarily not attainable by other means.

As a parent, I am firmly entrenched in the trailing edge of culinary (and most other types of) fashion. So while I may have missed the initial burst of popularity of sous vide @ home, this still sounded pretty damn high tech to me. So high tech that it must be able to make fake skate! Now, where to get the immersion circulator? If you don’t have $1000 to blow on a piece of equipment that might make the dish you want, it helps to have foodie friends. I was fortunate enough to be able to test drive a commercial quality immersion circulator. The result? My wife can attest to the fact that when I got this thing, I was like a Chinese restaurant on Christmas. Trust me, I was sous vide’ing everything in sight. In doing so, I learned several key things:

  1. Cooking scallops sous vide does not make them taste or feel like skate.
  2. Just because you use a fancy technique doesn’t mean your food will necessarily taste good.
  3. When properly deployed, the sous vide technique can yield astonishing things.

Since I can’t borrow a $1000 immersion circulator forever, my next goal was to figure out how to rig up a device that could accomplish the same thing with a substantially lower price tag. After all, if you really need to do it, you could get similar results the old-fashioned way, by using a large pot of water on the stove and obsessively checking/adjusting its temperature. That’s what is now affectionately known as “ghetto sous vide.” But I wanted something a bit more refined than that. I wanted something safe, cheap, and automatic. Something a little nicer than the ghetto—more of a “suburban sous vide.” Fortunately, these problems have been solved by many other people. I am currently in the process of assembling my rig, and will digest the information I’ve learned about this process in the very near future. Subsequent to that, I will return to documenting tasty things cooked by me, some of which may involve suburban sous vide. Stay tuned! 

(photo © Deborah Jones Studio from Under Pressure by Thomas Keller)

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2 comments… read them below or add one

Maria Sharp April 20, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Ben – just wanted to let you know that I’m loving your blog and I can’t wait to hear more about your Sous Vide journey and oh yes we need pics of your “Suburban Sous Vide”.

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Ben April 20, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Thanks, Maria! I just sous vided me up some chicken last night!

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