Before the writer gets to the kitchen, it was time to shop.
I had signed up for Chef Abigail Hitchcock‘s always sold-out Saturday Chinatown Shop and Cook. The plan: meet in Chinatown at 10am to buy fish and produce, then head back to Camaje in Greenwich Village for an afternoon cooking course and fish feast. There was the potential for this to be a frigid foray into Chinatown, but the weather was cooperating, and Saturday morning was sunny and mild.
The group (7 participants this time around) met on the corner of Baxter and Canal, one of the only spaces in this bustling neighborhood where there’s sufficient room to gather. We all introduced ourselves and listened to Abby’s introduction on the class and shopping in Chinatown. Full of fish and produce markets, this neighborhood is often crowded, and sales are made at a rapid pace. The prices are good — sometimes very good — and with a little information on what to look for, Chinatown all of a sudden became much less intimidating.
The first key to success is breaking free of the crowds. We passed a busy market on Canal Street displaying colorful mounds of fish, but turned the corner onto quieter Mulberry Street. Here was New Hai Cang Seafood Shop, at 71 Mulberry Street. The selection was slightly smaller than the larger market around the corner, but it had a much calmer feel. Customers were reaching right into the ice, surveying whole fish of every shape and size. For anyone used to paying grocery store prices, the cost is surprisingly cheap. The first thing to catch my eye was big, glistening sardines for just $2.00 a pound.
We stepped back from the bustle of the market to learn about what to look for when buying fish. Abby had a long list of helpful tips, both for buying fillets and whole fish (to learn all the secrets, sign up for the Chinatown Shop and Cook, dates here) . One great tip involved buying whole fish. “Be sure to look at the eyes of the fish,” Abby told us as locals bought pounds of grouper and piles of head-on shrimp. “The eyes should be clear and bright, not dull or sunken.”
After our mini-lesson, we stepped up to the stand to make our purchases. The branzini looked fresh, with shiny skin and bright red gills. As people shopped around us, I noticed everyone poking and prodding the fish. Abby pointed out towels at the side of the stand where it is customary to dry your hands after making purchases. Next up was black sea bass, which looked great, but was a little on the small side.
A light went off in the man’s face who was helping us with our order. He charged into the back of the shop, returning with a black sea bass twice the size of those on display and a smile on his face. We took two. After choosing some chunky sardines and a bag of mussels, our order was complete. When buying whole fish, you always pay by the pound, but the fish shop will do some of the work for you. We waited a couple minutes as they gutted and scaled our fish, leaving only the fun of filleting the fish for our group of aspiring cooks.
With our bags of fresh fish in hand, we trotted next door for some vegetables. Baby bok choy, mustard greens, Napa cabbage, Chinese long beans — all of this fresh produce was piled high and affordably priced. We bought a few fire-red chilis and some fresh mangos to make salsa. At this point, around 11am, the markets were starting to wake up and fill. I live nearby, and made a note to myself to arrive early in the future for a chance to peacefully poke around and survey my options for the day.
Now it was time to cook. We hopped into two cabs and on a sunny Saturday morning, sped towards Greenwich Village. Abby’s restaurant, Camaje, has been a neighborhood staple for over 14 years. Now we were about to get behind the scenes in a restaurant kitchen to prepare an ambitious menu that began with fish stock, and ended with steaming seafood stew with saffron and tomatoes.
In the next post, I get in the kitchen with Abby to learn how to masterfully fillet fish, how to grill sardines, and how to prepare a mango salsa to accompany grilled tuna.
**Chinatown Shop and Cook is just one example of the cooking classes on offer at Camaje. Check out the full listings here.