By Doreen Leggett
Sandy Peterson, who lives at Liberty Commons in Chatham, loves to watch cooking shows, particularly on PBS.
She pays special attention to episodes on seafood because she grew up in the Mid-West and didn’t eat fish until she moved east.
Peterson, white hair setting off a salmon-colored shirt, was sitting with a group of friends about to try a brand-new recipe for Provencal Fish Stew.
“You are our test kitchen,” joked Captain Bill Amaru.
Amaru, joined by Captain Greg Connors and his dad, John, a shellfisherman, ladled out 50 bowls to residents gathered in one of the function rooms of the senior-living and rehabilitation facility.
The stew is a new initiative of the Fishermen’s Alliance, a sister soup to haddock chowder launched in 2020 to keep fishermen on the water and provide a healthy, easy-to-prepare meal to food banks.
“This one’s different, tomato-based rather than mik and cream,” said Seth Rolbein, who helps run the program, “and along with French flair and hearty vegetables it’s filled with pieces of skate, fish that comes right from our communities.”
“Skate?” asked Wilda Shepherd who was sitting across from Peterson. She remembers when it was considered something like a trash fish. “I don’t know if it is anymore.”
Decidedly not. White, firm, skate is popular overseas and in high-end restaurants in major metropolitan areas. In New York City, skate has been featured as the main event in a $200 four-course meal.
“If we were in France right now you would see skate front and center on the menu,” Rolbein said. “It would be a delicacy and you would pay crazy money.”
The story is different on the Cape, said Connors, captain of the Constance Sea, one of the first fishermen in Chatham to focus on skate.
“Tens of millions of pounds get landed about a mile away,” said Connors. “And almost none of it gets eaten here.”
Adding insult to injury, skate is one of the few plentiful fish that can be caught year-round. The entire fish is used; wings get made into fillets or fish stew and the “rack” is used as bait.
Amaru, who has caught skate and haddock during his 50-year career, agreed. He expressed frustration because we ship skate elsewhere while importing the vast majority of fish we eat from overseas, close to 90 percent, he said.
The fish stew is another attempt by the Fishermen’s Alliance, building on the Pier to Plate program and other efforts, to get more people to try local fish.
The stew is ready to go, just heat and serve. Like the haddock chowder, it is made at a family-run chowder maker, Plenus in Lowell, and shipped to regional food banks, including the Greater Boston Food Bank and the Family Pantry of Cape Cod.
The skate is processed at SeaTrade or Red’s Best, two facilities that handle the winged fish. Haddock is processed at Great Eastern Seafood.
Both chowder and the stew are supported by Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program, state funding for food banks, as well as MIT Sea Grant, Cape Cod Healthcare and Sailor Snug Harbor. A recent stew delivery also was supported by a grant through the Family Pantry.
“The challenge of COVID really demanded that people get creative,” said Rolbein.
But the chowder and the stew will outlast the pandemic.
“The local fishing community needs to continue to be supported,” Rolbein said. “Commercial fishing needs to be celebrated and valued better.”
Amaru said he is hoping buyers from big grocery chains are able to sample the fish stew soon.
“Once people try it, the shelves would be empty,” he continued.
Alex Hay, owner of Wellfleet Shellfish Company who helped create the stew recipe, is waiting for that happen.
“Skate is such an under-utilized species,” Hay said. “This is one of my favorite seafoods for its mild, subtle flavor, but more importantly for its soft but firm texture that has great mouth feel. This stew could be a great way to add value and get it into the mouths of hungry folks! I wish it the best of luck.”
The fish stew was a hit at Liberty Commons, accompanied by an afternoon concert from solo musician Kalifornia Karl.
“I just love the community engagement for residents who live here,” said Activities Director Steve Franco between tunes. “Everyone who moved to the Cape moved to be near the ocean and it’s nice to meet fishermen who are working the ocean.”
Karl Clark, a native Cape Codder, has known fishermen his whole life and knows how hard they work. Getting more people to recognize and enjoy the resource off the coast and allow the industry to thrive makes a lot of sense to him. Irene Bard, whose son fished out of Chatham, agreed.
Bottom line, however, was that “the stew is delicious,” said Wilda.
As they finished up Kalifornia Karl played a fitting song, “I Got You,” by James Brown.
“So good,” he crooned, “so good!”