Prepping a Sea Robin: the Next New Thing

Sea robins are prehistoric-looking creatures, one reason they’ve gotten a bad rap in these parts. They’re sneered at as trash fish by some, but inner circles of hard-core fisherman regard them as one of the sweetest of local fish, delicious. They’re given an edge because they’re local, and no supermarket product transcends the flavor of a freshly caught fish.

But there is the whole off-putting deal of cleaning sea robins. It’s not as tricky you think unless you’re momentarily unwary as I was. But any turn in the kitchen is potentially dangerous when you’re wielding a dull knife. However, once you’ve sharpened your knife and mastered the technique or turned the job over to a local fish shop, prepare for some wonderful eating. You wouldn’t believe how willing friends are to sample this strange-looking fish they’ve never tasted. The sweet flavor and the moist firm texture helps explain why there’s a huge cult of sea robin lovers around the world. When you google “how to clean sea robins?” you’ll score 14 million hits.

My sea robin dinners, which started as an experiment to learn how this often unloved fish tastes, and I wrote about in the Fall 2014 issue, quickly took on a life of their own.

Preparing for the Great Sea Robin Dinner No. 4 with 15 sea robins in my refrigerator set for cleaning, I ran into Jim Grimes, owner of Montauk’s Fort Pond Native Plants, and asked his advice on how to protect my hands while cleaning them. He suggested buying heavy duty neoprene gloves. “Fifteen sea robins?” he said, as his pet pig, George, snuggled into his lap after Grimes slipped behind the wheel of his pick-up. “Better you than me!”

Later, I opened my refrigerator door and studied the 25 pounds of sea robins from Sean Barret’s Dock to Dish community supported seafood cooperative waiting to be skinned.  “I think I may hate sea robins,” I thought. But I was committed. I had a sea robin dinner to prepare.

For Sea Robin Dinner No. 1,  Jessica James, my friend and California chef of 40 years had brought her set of knives to my kitchen and we followed directions for skinning the fish also known as Gunards after watching two excellent videos: the first is above, the other from London’s Billingsgate Market. It’s worth watching both. With the combined viewings, you’ll realize how easy it is to slice off the line of fins that run up the fish’s back, top spikes which carry a mild poison to numb their prey, then to cut crosswise below the head and simply tug down and remove the skin from the tail like peeling off a glove.

I felt pretty confident approaching Sea Robin Dinner No. 2, and told Jessica I’d go it alone. I picked up my knife, which I hadn’t bothered to sharpen. I knew better, but it was such a short ride up the back of the fish. When later I did buy an excellent razor sharp knife for filleting fish at Paulie’s Tackle Shop in downtown Montauk for the next dinner, I told Paulie Apostolides how I had managed to fillet off part of my knuckle followed by a trip to the emergency care center after I’d wakened several days later to a red and swollen forefinger. He didn’t pressure me to buy the more expensive and more flexible carbon steel knife.“I’d rather pay the extra for a good knife, than risk paying for more antibiotics,” I said with a shudder. “There is nothing more dangerous in a kitchen than a dull knife,” agreed Paulie. That is now my number one cooking mantra.

The morning after the accident, Jessica, something of a renaissance woman, arrived with her knives after her EMS ambulance shift and tending her flock of chickens and bee hives and skinned the remaining sea robins. “You want a good fillet knife that has a blade with flexibility up by the handle,” she said. “That allows you to angle the knife upwards as you’re cutting the backbone.” Both videos demonstrate the technique with knife and scissors.

I’d packed up the sea robin heads I’d collected after skinning the tails for Dinner No. 3 and drove to Stuart’s Seafood Shop in Amagansett where Bruce Sasso, who co-owns the shop with his wife, Charlotte, deftly removed the gills from the heads, parts that can impart a nasty and bitter flavor to stock. I was aiming for the flow of sea flavors that Bryan Futermann, caterer and cook at Nick and Toni’s told me gurnards will give to broth. I simmered the fish heads gently, like I learned to when I lived in Germany years ago from chef Dieter Braun at the Hotel Restaurant Sonnenur close to the Wehlener Sonnenurn vineyards in the Mosel wine district, and then reduced the stock ever so slowly for 11 hours. Worth the effort, I was told later. Gurnard, as a bottom-feeding creature of the sea, collects flavors of the ocean like lobsters and other crustaceans; these flavors intensify as stock reduces.

Around 11 o’clock on the morning of Dinner Number No. 4, improbable odds played out as I stood fingering the 10 skinned sea robin tails awaiting for me to fillet. I was feeling hurried and daunted by what I knew would be several hours of work. But I have the photos to prove what  now almost seems like a fantasy in the retelling. With a knock at the door, Tom Jones, a big and burly computer repairman I’d been expecting to repair my internet interruptions arrived and spotted the one whole sea robin next to the skinned tails on the kitchen counter. “Sea robins,” he said. “I’ve been catching them along with other fish and smoking them for the last 40 years. The best wood is hickory.”

He then tasted the smoked sea robin pate I had refrigerated the night before to blend its flavors for 24 hours. On a whim, I’d filled my stove-top smoker with cherry wood chips instead of the usual mix of alder and oak I’ve used well over a hundred times, a mistake I’ll never repeat. The cherry wood lent an acrid tang, though the guests that evening said acrid or not it was terrific.

As Jones worked in my office with the computer, I wrestled with filleting the first tail. The results were  ragged, but would go into the ceviche so that didn’t matter.  But the fillets for roasting did. “Ummm, Tom,” I called out, “Ummm, do you possibly suppose you could show me how you fillet a sea robin tail?”

Standing by my kitchen counter he deftly cut into the tail a fraction of an inch from one side of the the backbone. “You follow the bones of the rib cage.”  My new flexible carbon steel knife slipped  over the rib bones as if they were a steel template. Tom lifted off a perfect fillet while I grabbed my camera.  I still feel awed by the improbability of a fisherman who is chairman of a fishing association and for years has been smoking fish for others, receiving half the smoked fish as payment for himself winding up in my kitchen on the one day in my life when I needed guidance in filleting a batch of sea robins.

The evening following the dinner I slipped the skin off the whole sea robin Lindsay Morris photographed, but felt too tired to follow even Tom’s simple filleting instructions and roasted it whole for 10 minutes at 390 degrees, after I  rubbed with a little olive oil. A table knife parted the fillet from the bones with a half twist of the wrist. Tasting it, I realized that sea robin tails are also meant to be roasted whole, perhaps after marinating overnight.

Sea robins are definitely a fish waiting for new recipes.