The other day, I had the pleasure of informally interviewing my favorite fishmonger. His name is Mark Drabich and he owns (what I consider) one of the best seafood operations in the northeastâMetropolitan Seafoodâ located in the most unlikely of places, aÂ rural county inÂ northern New Jersey, off a sleepy commercial highway. It’s also only about 50 miles from New York City, which is where Mark travels every morning at some godforsaken hour to pick out fish at the wholesale seafoodÂ market at Hunts Point in the Bronx (aka, the new Fulton Fish Market), alongside fishmongers and chefs from all over the New York City-metro area, including famed establishments like Per Se andÂ Le Bernardin.
The best thing about hanging with Mark is not just that he feeds you lunch made in his shop’s take-out kitchen (on this occasion it was twoÂ soft tacos stuffed to bursting with delicately friedÂ rockÂ shrimp dressed with a spicy mayonnaise and pickled red onion and jalapeÃ±os…there may have also been a chaser of lobster bisque…), but being privy to his very deep knowledge on the topic of selecting, buying, and preparing fish. The man is a fish guru, with a growly voice and a good dose of Jersey bluster. My hope was to glean information for those of you who are still skittish in the fish department. Perhaps because good fish is expensive and you just don’t want to mess it up. Perhaps because you ate “bad” fish once and you’ve kept your distanceÂ ever since. Or maybe you just make the same fish the same way over and over and so are in dire need of some new ideas. If any of theseÂ descriptions sounds familiar, then hereÂ are 3 of my favorite takeaways from my fishÂ chat whichÂ addresses all of these concerns:
- “If Â you walk into a fish store or by a fish counter and it smells “fishy”, turn around and walk away.” Fish should NOT smell fishy, it should smell clean. Same with the establishment selling the fish. Worse, if you get a whiff of an ammoniated smell, that’s the smell of decomposing fish…so when in doubt, remember, “the nose doesn’tÂ lie!” Find yourself another vendor, and in the meantime, maybeÂ buy aÂ nice organic whole chicken for dinner instead.
- Wild-caught, sustainable fish is the ideal. But this may not always be in your price point, or readily available. So Mark says that almost as good isÂ organic fish that is hormone and antibiotic free. The person selling you the fish should provide this information openly, “people are afraid to ask, but ask!”. What you DON’T want, EVER, is fish processed in China or farm-raised in Southeast Asia, where practices are not well regulated and pollution is rampant. Even frozen fish can be preferable to fresh fish that is not coming from the best place (I have bought some solid frozen cod and salmon from Trader Joe’s; wild caught Gulf shrimp is also a good bet).
- “Have an open mind” says Mark. Salmon, tilapia, shrimp, yada yada…all fine and good and kinda boring. But why not take a stroll past the under-appreciated fish section, where you’ll find terrific value and taste. Mark recommends varieties like skate, whitings, porgies, and sardines. Most can be cooked simply: Season all over with salt and pepper, dust with flour, cook in a hot skillet skimmed with olive oil, flip and baste with butter and lemon juice, serve with chopped parsley and the pan-juices on top.Â I did exactly this after Mark convinced me on an earlier visit to buy some large, cleaned sardines he had gotten in (so these don’t resemble the ones you find in dusty can in the back of Â your aunt’s pantry, but the larger, fresh variety). I went home, made them exactly as described above, and they were completeÂ HEAVEN. I’ve been a sardine convert ever since. I’ve also done the same with Spanish Mackerel, which has a wonderful flavor andÂ now whenever I see it at the store, I have to buy it.
Thanks again to Mark for all the solid wisdom (side note: the salmon pictured above is a side of organic salmon I purchased at Metropolitan that I prepared KEEPERS style, roasted in the oven with slices of lemon on top and a flurry of herbs to finish it off. Check out the recipe for one of the simplest and most satisfying fish recipes you can make; and I highly recommend making an entire side (which will be about 3-4 pounds depending), which is wonderful as a dinner party dish, or because you can use the leftovers the next day for KEEPERS Expat Fried Rice (a major reader favorite), or just flaked and gently tossed into a bowl of soba noodles with ponzu sauce for a tastyÂ lunch.