MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Over the summer, seafood chef David Pasternack paid us a visit. He owns a popular seafood restaurant in New York City called Esca. His signature dish there is crudo - that's raw fish served Italian style with a drizzle of olive oil and lemon and a sprinkling of salt. The fish he brought in was so fresh and so delicious it made us wonder, how does a master chef like Pasternack buy fish? What does he look for? And if we looked over his shoulder, might there be lessons for the rest of us?
To find out, we stayed up late, really late, to follow Pasternack on a 2 a.m. shopping trip.
When Frank Sinatra crooned about New York being the city that never sleeps, he may have had a spot like this in mind, the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx. It's a 400,000-square-foot warehouse filled with rows of fishmongers, dozens of them, and it is freezing in here. Everything is on ice, since freshness is key. The activity is a bit zany. Scores of forklifts buzz around like dragonflies - forward, backwards, stacked high with crates.
David Pasternack is right at home.
DAN KIM: There's the man.
DAVID PASTERNACK: Hi, David. How are you?
KIM: Just good, man. Yourself?
PASTERNACK: (Unintelligible) What do we got today?
KIM: Oh, let's take a look.
NORRIS: Fishmonger Dan Kim directs Pasternack some plastic bins full of gleaming whole fish.
PASTERNACK: We have the Kampachi from Hawaii. It's a (Unintelligible) fish excellent for sashimi.
KIM: It's supposed to be the McDaddy of all yellow tails.
NORRIS: The McDaddy of yellow tails.
KIM: That's what they say.
Pasternack quickly looks over the catch, points to a few, then turns to the salmon.
Tell me what you're looking for as you look at the salmon.
PASTERNACK: Salmon - we're looking for. If you look at it, it's got a beautiful shape there. The scales are still intact, you know, it's nice and firm, there's slime on it.
NORRIS: Now, why do you want the slime on it? What does that tell you?
PASTERNACK: We're going to open up another box. The slime - it's the natural sliming of the fish.
NORRIS: But if you're looking for salmon for - to serve at your home table, what should you look for in the store?
PASTERNACK: Well, in the stores it's going to be filleted already. You want to look at the fish; it's got a nice shine to it, it looks like the flesh is firm, it's not soft and mushy.
NORRIS: Should you look for a center-cut piece?
PASTERNACK: For me, on the big fish like this, the best cut is the belly.
KIM: The belly.
NORRIS: The belly. More fat, Pasternack says, therefore tastier and more forgiving when it's cooked - less likely to get too dry.
PASTERNACK: Here comes my halibut cut. Is that it, brother? How are you this morning? Good?
ERIC TAFORO: Good. I got out every flavor for you today.
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NORRIS: Halibut guy, also known as Eric Taforo, wears quilted flannel shirt and a pencil behind his ear. He ushers us into a small backroom where he keeps his special stash.
TAFORO: These fish are about 14 hours old.
NORRIS: He tears open a box and pulls out a silvery specimen.
TAFORO: Dave likes real clarity for his crudos.
PASTERNACK: We'll watch - we'll watch what he does.
TAFORO: So I take a...
PASTERNACK: A little incision on the tail and we're going to check the coloring of the fish. Make sure it's not milky, because sometimes these halibut, when they struggle the flesh gets a little milky or they could be (unintelligible).
TAFORO: Yeah. I'll show you out front with a flashlight.
NORRIS: So Taforo shines his light on the chunk of fish he's just cut from the tail.
PASTERNACK: See how you could see right through the meat? It's got clarity, yet it's got a little fat. That's how I look. I want to be able to see right through the meat for him.
NORRIS: Okay. That's a yes on the halibut. Pasternack will add that to his list and his menu. Not so much luck with the shrimp. Pasternack heads to Ritchie(ph), the shrimp king, but the pickings are pretty slim.
PASTERNACK: What's going on in the world of shrimp, man?
PASTERNACK: Not much, huh. No head-on or what, man?
RITCHIE: (Unintelligible). Maybe tomorrow.
PASTERNACK: Not that fresh, huh?.
NORRIS: And here's a lesson to be learned. It's a bad idea, Pasternack says, to come to the market already set on what you plan to buy.
PASTERNACK: If you walk around the market, you see what people have and if you like what you see you buy or if you don't like what you see you don't buy it. You miss over that, you want some (unintelligible).
And you can't always go the store and say, okay, I'm going to go buy swordfish. And if the swordfish doesn't look good, well, maybe you should try something else.
NORRIS: When you go to the market, sometimes they will ask if you'd like a bag of ice to keep the fish as fresh as possible and tell you...
PASTERNACK: Great idea. You know, fish should be kept well chilled. Ice is very important in the fish. Fifty to seventy-five percent of what you buy is the quality of what you bought. The other 25 to 50 percent is how you handle it. So I can buy this fish, pack in ice, you're right, put it away correctly, and it's as good as - it's got a shelf life, like, Eric will call me up sometimes with a halibut and say, I guarantee the halibut for 10 days.
NORRIS: Now, obviously, most of us don't have halibut guys calling to guarantee that the fish we buy was caught just hours ago. Still, Pasternack says his number one rule remains - get to know the guy or the gal who handle seafood as your local grocery. Ask questions, request special cuts. Find out, for instance, what they would serve with pride at their table.
David, thank you for this fieldtrip.
PASTERNACK: Oh, it's my pleasure. I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope it was a good learning experience for you.
NORRIS: It was wonderful. Next time we have to come to the restaurant.
And if you want a fish for recipes from David Pasternack's cookbook, "The Young Man and the Sea," head to our Web site, npr.org.
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