There’s No Love in Seafood

There’s no room for trust in the seafood business. I’ve seen the jolliest chefs turn narrow-eyed and suspicious as soon as the fish delivery arrives. After eying the deliveryman up and down, they’ll go over each individual fish with the kind of paranoid detail usually reserved for buying a used car. Oh, they’re checking the eyes to make sure they’re not cloudy or sunken, they’re snorting great lungfulls of air one-inch over the fish, and they’re lifting gills to make that sure that they’re ruddy–all the while making that poor deliveryman wait. Why all the fuss? Because fish is expensive and highly perishable. With seafood, time is money. If that gem-like, sashimi-grade tuna doesn’t make it long enough to sell out, chefs will lose its big-ticket value and may even wind up cooking it and dumping into seafood salad or zuppa di pesce. This is like bailing out of high-priced stocks as the market crashes. You’ve got to move these things like, yesterday, and never mind the loss. It can only get worse.

At least those chefs have half a chance of getting fresh fish. Most of us are at the mercy of supermarkets, which (9 times out of 10), have removed the fish’s tell-tale head and filleted its flesh. This means that you won’t see the superannuated specimen’s sunken, cloudy eyes and pale, long-dead gills. You won’t see its dry, split fins. Worse, the fillets come pre-packed in plastic-wrapped, Styrofoam trays, so you won’t even smell their old, intensely fishy odor – until you get home followed by a pack of cats, that is.

While dedicated fish markets might be better than supermarkets, neither is as good as living near a fishing community or knowing a local fisherman. Here in Westchester, that’s actually possible.

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Rick Lofstad, owner of a 55-foot vessel sailing out of Hampton Bays, Long Island (near Southampton), is currently vending his strictly line caught, day boat fish at three local farmers’ markets: in Ossining, in Pleasantville and in Larchmont, where he shares a stall with Plates restaurant. (According to market director Miriam Haas, Chef Karp’s crew is just helping Captain Lofstad out by manning the shared stall.) Not only has Captain Lofstad represented New York State on the national seafood management boards for eight years, but he also exports L.I. fluke and whiting to Japan and Spain. He’s responsible for two fishermen’s cooperatives, representing 85% of New York State’s fish production. Pura-Vida Fisheries, named for Captain Lofstad’s boat, operates under permits from the Department of Commerce, National Marine Fisheries Service. All of his wares are locally caught, L.I. species, and all are sustainably fished.

Look for the Pura-Vida (pure-life) Fisheries stalls on Saturdays in Ossining, Pleasantville and Larchmont (at the Plates stall). For more info on locations, dates and times of markets, check out the NY State agmarket site. Recently, we caught Pura Vida vending tuna, swordfish, fluke, littleneck clams, scallops, squid, striped bass, sole, and hake – all fresh and beautiful, smelling only of the sea. For the best selection, aim to arrive early.

Failing that, our default fishmonger is Kam Sen in the White Plains Mall. Sure, this is a mall so beat that it doesn’t even have an escalator (not to mention a glass-walled elevator), plus, it’s located downstairs from the most depressing place on earth–the DMV. Even so, the fish here is pristine, AND it’s un-filleted and un-beheaded. Go ahead, look bravely into this fish’s eyes, sniff its flesh and poke under its gills—this fish is fresh, fresh, fresh. And even if your knife skills are middling, the counterman will cut your selection any way you want, while you wait. They’re very free with ice at Kam Sen, too, so you can ice down your purchase for the car ride home.

Columbus Day: the day the Hudson runs red

One of the things that has always amused us is that every description of our great continent’s discovery starts the same (and we’re paraphrasing here): “First the sailors reached the shore and fell onto their scurvied knees and kissed the unheaving ground. Then they drank a lot of water and then killed something and ate it. Sated, they then looked around themselves and said, ‘Hey – I bet we could make some pretty good wine here.’”

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So it went in 1000 AD with Eric the Red and the Vikings, who named Nova Scotia Vinland for the grapes they hallucinated there; and so with the Spanish, too, who actually succeeded in making some pretty good wine by the year 1525. Those hapless pilgrims whom we celebrate at Thanksgiving were also trying to get the party started, making home-made wine out of wild grapes, domestic grapes, currants, persimmons, blackberries and even dandelions. These were resourceful, can-do people, just bursting with Pioneer Spirit.

Yet somehow, in the intervening centuries, we’ve become removed from the wine-making process. We think, “This is something best left to Frenchmen and Californians, who have hereditary castles and wine caves and people in lab-coats hanging around.” So we trundle off to the liquor store to plop down our credit card, our money going to foreign lands and people we don’t know. We’ve forgotten that wine-making is our patrimony and the ultimate DIY project. It couldn’t be simpler. You mash up some grapes, you let them sit, you strain out all the skins and stems and twigs and leaves and bees and stuff, and then you let them sit some more. When the result is good and funky, start up the music. It’s time to party.

The process comes closest to its roots at the Annual Harvest-on-Hudson Grape Crush and Winemaking, held this year (its sixth) on Columbus Day with proceeds to benefit St. John’s Riverside Hospital. We attended last year and it was a thing of beauty. There, outdoors on a warm October day, with the mighty Hudson rolling by and a mile-long buffet of wonderful Mediterranean foods, we celebrated the eternal autumn ritual of wine-making. After everyone had eaten to their heart’s content, children dumped truckloads of crated grapes into either hand-cranked or mechanical wine presses, to get chopped up and squeezed (leaves, stems, bees and all), into giant vats. It’s fun to watch and do, everyone gets splattered with grape juice and the sweet, heady scent of winemaking hangs in the air.

Last year, samples from all four previous vintages were on hand to demonstrate time’s effect on the basic process we were watching. Each year’s wine was subtly different from the last, with the final, oldest wine being most complex. It’s a fascinating palate exercise—plus, they pour quite liberally.

The Sixth Annual Harvest-on-Hudson Grape Crush and Winemaking will be held on Columbus Day (October 8), from 1-6pm, with a suggested donation of $25 per person to benefit St. John’s Riverside Hospital. Children are admitted free. For more information, call Harvest-on-Hudson (914) 478-2800 or visit the restaurant’s Web site.

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