By Brian Lodge
Ten years ago, my wife and I were enjoying dinner at one of our favorite Italian restaurants in Baltimore, Maryland when I spied something on the menu that made my jaw drop. I did a double take when I saw, right there with the entrees, Skate wings, sautéed in a lemon and white wine sauce with capers and sun dried tomatoes. Impossible, I thought. I’ve been catching and throwing these ugly fish back all my life, and this restaurant is charging $30 a plate for it? My curiosity got the best of me, so I forewent the grilled bronzini and took a daring foray into something that I had been calling a trash fish for many years. The rest, as they say, is history. The horribly ugly fish that had been fouling my fluke rigs and causing me great frustration turned out to be one of the most delicious fish that I had ever eaten.
So why is a skate a garbage fish? What about dogfish or even sea robin? How come everyone with a fishing pole has been calling these poor fish names? My curiosity got the best of me, and I was determined to keep and eat the very next so-called garbage fish that I caught, and that’s just what I did.
While fishing for fluke with friends outside of the Barnegat Inlet, just off Island Beach State Park, I hooked into the mother of all trash fish – a 5-pound skate. After a forgettable battle, the skate hit the deck of our boat, and just as everyone expected me to call it the obligatory names and toss it back, I put it in the box. Several of my friends looked at me like I was in need of therapy, but after I described my experience at the restaurant, they shrugged and went back to fluking.
Back at the dock, I quickly learned why these tasty treats are labeled a nuisance. It stung me. That’s right, it stung me.While skate do not have a venomous barb on their tail like their cousin, the stingray, they do have thorny spines on their back. As I began cleaning the prehistoric-looking beast, trying my best to get a handle on its slippery wings, one of the thorns punctured my thumb. It wasn’t an emergency room situation, but it hurt like hell. It turns out, the thorns on their back have a very mild of venom, and if you are unfortunate enough to get pricked by one of them, you’ll find out why anglers handle them as little as possible.
Still, I was determined, and after patching up my thumb, I got back to the task of cleaning the fish. I managed to retrieve some meat, though I must admit, it was the worst fish-cleaning job I had done in my life. That night, I tried to duplicate the dish I had in Baltimore and sure enough, it was no fluke – it was even better. Skate are delicious.
From that day on, skate have regularly found their way into the fish box and onto our dinner table, along with the other supposed garbage species such as the beloved sea robin and delicious dogfish. Beyond delicious meals, however, something larger came out my experience with catching and eating the fish that everyone else threw overboard, and that was the realization that by keeping a few of the so-called trash species, not only was I eating well, but I might
actually be doing some good. For example, by keeping skates, dogfish or sea robins for the dinner table, I was less inclined to harvest the more pressured species, such as striped bass, fluke and weakfish. If other anglers did the same, then maybe the numbers of more popular species in our waters would increase. Also the ravenous appetites of these “trash fish” may also have a negative effect on other species in our area. For example, while cleaning a skate that I had taken about 5 miles offshore, I found exactly 113 pinky-nail-sized blue crabs in its belly!
I created a website in honor of these aquatic underdogs, garbagefish.com, to educate people on how to clean and eat the fish that many had previously never considered. Because most anglers simply don’t understand that you can eat these fish, I thought a website was a great way to show them how to do it. After launching the site, I was amazed at how many fishermen from around the world are fond of catching and eating garbage fish.
I get quite a few emails from folks in Europe who have been eating garbage fish for a long time. In fact, if you’ve ever been to England and have had fish and chips, you’ve probably had dogfish because this is the primary fish they use in this across-the-pond staple. Species like pollock, haddock and cod have long been overfished in Europe, and they’ve been forced to look to other species as suitable substitutes in their seafood dishes. At any fish market in Europe, you will see skate wing, a species of sea robin (known as gurnard in Europe) and dogfish, proudly displayed on the beds of ice that once were filled with codfish. Yet, here in the States we’ve yet to embrace the fact that these fish are not only fun to catch but great table fare.
Of course, between the catching and the eating, there is the task of cleaning these odd-looking fish. There is a trick to cleaning them, and when you clean them, as well as how you clean them, is affects how the fish will taste. Skate and dogfish in particular need to be very well cared for. You’ll need to ice and clean them as soon as possible or a distinct ammonia flavor will develop in the meat. They can be iced like other fish, but when back at the dock, make sure to get the skin off them as soon as possible.
Skate are probably the trickiest trash fish to clean. To start, you’ll need a good pair of gloves, a serrated knife and some type of clamping device. Take your skate and slice the wing off in a semi-curved pattern, following the line of the fattest part of the wing. Do the same with the other side, then discard the head, tail and spine section. Now comes the tricky part. I use a special pair of grippers, but pliers work great too. Grab the skin from the side where you made your cut and begin pulling it in the opposite direction. It takes some work, but the skin will eventually come right off. Now, repeat on the underside of the wing and you are left with a delicious looking piece of meat. There are no bones in a skate wing, but there is a cartilaginous strip that runs through the middle of the entire wing. You can either cook it on the cartilage, which is fine, or filet the top and bottom meat portion of the wing, right off the cartilage. If it’s a large skate, I’ll take the time to clean the meat off the cartilage, but if it’s a smaller fish, I just cook it right on the cartilage.
Skate wings actually taste better if they are washed, wrapped, and placed in the coldest apart of the refrigerator for one or two days. What’s more, they freeze as well as any fish I’ve ever had. I’ve eaten skate wings a year after catching them. But, for your first skate, simply dredge the wings in flour, sauté them for 3 to 5 minutes per side, squeeze some lemon over them and you will have a delicious plate made out of something you’ve probably been throwing back for years.
Next, you’ll have to try sea robin. For my money – though my money can’t buy sea robin because you won’t see them in the fish market – I prefer this fish over fluke. There are several ways to clean these fish, but for the beginner sea robin fisherman, simply fillet it as you would a striped bass. You’ll run into a strange Y-shaped bone behind the gill plate, but if you’ve cleaned a fish before, you’ll be able to come away with a decent morsel of mouth-watering garbage fish. More advanced sea-robin-cleaning techniques that will yield a bit more meat can be found on garbagefish.com.
From here, you can prepare sea robin using the same methods you would with fluke, but I recommend keeping it simple. Since it’s not going to be a giant slab of fish, try cutting it into nugget-sized bites, and after breading them, introduce them to your fryer. My five-year-old son would eat nothing but chicken nuggets and yogurt until the fateful day I served him a plate of “chicken nuggets” that were secretly some fried sea robin bites. He ate as if the Colonel himself made them, and he immediately became a garbage fish convert as well. To liven up the fried sea robin a bit, don’t be afraid to hit them with a little lemon spritz or even serve them with a dipping sauce. Once you taste them, you will ask yourself why you’ve been throwing these ugly fish back all these years.
The dogfish rounds out our top three garbage fish species, although there are others to consider. Be they smooth or spiny, dogfish need to be cleaned quickly as they have the same ammonia issue as skates. There are several ways to dress them, but the most important thing is to get them out of their skin as soon as possible. One method is to use a sharp knife, remove the organs, and then collar them. After you’ve cut the skin completely around the neck, fix the head to a cleaning table and pull the skin from the neck to the tail using a good pair of pliers. You will be left with a piece of meat from which you can trim out the cartilage and then steak or prepare as filets. The easiest method, however, is to simply filet them just as you would a panfish. The most important part of this whole process is to be sure to skin your filet immediately.
From this point on, you can do virtually anything with this very mild, savory fish. My personal favorite is to steak them, wrap them in bacon and cook them on the grill with a light teriyaki glaze. I give the bacon a head start in a pan, remove the partially cooked bacon strips, and using a tooth pick, affix them to the steaks. From here, I’ll brush a bit of teriyaki sauce over the steaks, and with a piece of greased tinfoil on the grill, cook the steaks over medium indirect heat for approximately 7 to 10 minutes or until cooked through.
Once you serve grilled teriyaki dogfish steaks, your family and guests are going to ask why you’ve discarded these fish all your life. Even better, your significant other is going to let you go fishing more because unlike the hundreds of dollars you plunk down on fluking with nothing to show for it, you’ll now be bringing home dinner!