Skate Wing with Tamarind Gastrique

Makes 2 servings
Time: 30 minutes

James's food bears the mark of the formal French training he had, first at the Culinary Institute of America and later in the kitchen at Le Cirque (where he worked for Daniel Boulud), but he's not afraid to incorporate new ingredients into his dishes. Since he has a wonderful palate, the results are often fabulous.

This fancified version of the Skate with Brown Butter and Honey, with the exotic flavors of tamarind, ginger, and anise – served over porcini mushrooms – grabbed my attention the first time I ate it. With its gastrique – essentially a sweet-and-sour sauce – and exotic ingredients, it's a quite miraculous transformation of a once-simple dish.

You could cook it as James does, with three or more pans going at once, but I've broken it down into easier-to-execute steps. Still, if your skate wings are exceptionally large, you may need to cook them sequentially, or use two pans.

For Tamarind Sauce, see below.

1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons anise honey or regular honey mixed with 1/2 teaspoon ground anise or fennel
20 dates, halved and pitted
1 cup tamarind sauce
1 tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
1/2 lemon, juiced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces fresh and preferably small porcini or shiitake mushrooms, halved lengthwise (if you use shiitakes, discard the stems)
Salt and black pepper to taste
4 tablespoons (1.2 stick) butter
2 (12-ounce) skinless skate wing fillets
1/4 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped

1. Combine the sugar and honey in a small saucepan with 1 tablespoon water and cook over medium heat until the mixture liquefies and browns. Add the dates and cook them, stirring, for 1 minute or so. Add the tamarind paste, ginger, and lemon juice; stir to incorporate and taste (making sure to let the sauce cool on the spoon for a minute before tasting) for seasoning. Adjust with more lemon juice or tamarind, as necessary, and keep warm over low heat.

2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a small sauté pan over medium high heat and after 1 minute or so, when the oil is shimmering, add the mushrooms, cut sides down. Cook them on the first side for 2 to 3 minutes, until nicely and rather deeply browned, then flip them over and season with salt and pepper. Turn the heat down to medium, add 2 tablespoons of the butter, and cook them another 3 to 5 minutes, until aromatic and cooked through. Keep warm over low heat.

3. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a 12- to 14-inch sauté pan, preferably non-stick (or split it between 2 smaller non-stick pans), over medium-high heat. After 1 minute or so, when the oil is shimmering, add the skate wings. Season them with salt and pepper and let them cook for 3 to 5 minutes?the idea is to finish about two-thirds of the cooking on the first side, ensuring a beautifully crisped and browned presentation side. When the first side is colored but short of being ready to flip, add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, cook 30 seconds more, and flip the wings over (use two spatulas if necessary to keep the skate from breaking). Cook about 2 minutes more; the fish is done when a thinbladed knife inserted into its thickest part meets little resistance. Remove from the heat.

4. Divide the mushrooms among 4 plates, lay a portion of the skate on top, and spoon the gastrique over all. Garnish with the toasted walnuts and serve immediately.

Tamarind Sauce

Makes: 1 to 2 cups
Time: about 30 minutes

This dark brown, tantalizingly sweet-and-sour sauce will be pleasingly familiar to frequenters of Southeast Asian restaurants; it's a classic.

Tamarind is old in many forms; Charles gets it fresh, or semi-fresh, and you can find it that way in some Asian markets. You're more likely to find dried pods, or a thick paste wrapped in plastic, still containing seeds and some hulls. (You can also buy premade tamarind sauce, and it's not bad, but this is better.) No matter what form you find, the process is the same: You cover the pods or paste with water and simmer gently, mashing until the whole thing is blended. Then you force the paste through a sieve and season it.

8 ounces dried tamarind pods or 1 pound tamarind paste
2 tablespoons fish sauce (nam pla or nuoc mam), to taste
1/2 cup sugar, or to taste

1. Simmer the pods or paste in hot water to cover, stirring and mashing until soft, about 10 minutes. If you used pods, remove the husks. Press the pulp and seeds through a fine-meshed sieve.

2. While warm, stir in the sugar and fish sauce to taste. Serve hot, with the lamb. (This sauce can be refrigerated for about 1 day and reheated just before serving; add a little water or lime juice if necessary to thin it out.)