Prime piscatorial pickings

Branzini, Dorado, Bluefish and Red Snapper (above) at Gadaleto’s in New Paltz.

Branzini, Dorado, Bluefish and Red Snapper (above) at Gadaleto’s in New Paltz.

I’m crazy for seafood. Put me on a desert island, and with just fish and maybe some cheese, I’d be happy. But I know how crucial it is for seafood to be perfectly fresh to be delicious – and how tricky it can be to find a good source for this delicate and highly perishable source of good lean protein, nutrition and taste.

The key is to jump in with all senses on alert to get the tastiest possible specimens, but it can be challenging to find quality seafood in this landlocked region. One local place that I’ve had great luck with is Sea Deli: a little hole-in-the-wall, full of character if not charm, on Broadway in Kingston. Not only is its restaurant a great spot for a variety of always-fresh, killer fried seafood, but the market usually has a few great specimens to take home and cook.

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I stopped in on February 6th, which just happened to be 40 years to the day since it opened, Dave Piccoli told me. He is the chief cook, there for the past 17 years. Frank Sr. and Marge opened the business in 1974, and Dave’s uncle and father, Frank Jr. and John, still choose the fish every Monday and Wednesday in the Bronx at the night market of the New Fulton Fish Market.

“You want wild-caught, not farm-raised,” was Dave’s advice on how to pick fish. That day Sea Deli had whole whiting and porgies, and fillets of catfish, haddock, flounder, sole and organic salmon. There were also sea scallops, shrimp in various sizes, littleneck clams, crabcakes, stuffed clams and seafood salad. In the adjoining restaurant everything is made in-house, from batters to sauces to soups and even the coleslaw, without preservatives. Don’t expect fancy ambiance, but laid-back comfort, great service and impeccable seafood. Sea Deli also offers party platters and lunchtime delivery within the Kingston area, and Frank and John take special requests for their trips to the Bronx.

Also sourcing its offerings from the Bronx market is Gadaleto’s in New Paltz, boasting “the largest selection of wild-caught and sustainably farmed seafood in the Hudson Valley.”

In operation since 1945, Gadaleto’s began as a Highland grocery store operated by Nat and Angelo Gadaleto and morphed into a seafood truck fleet, New Paltz fish market, and finally an adjoining restaurant. Although Steve Gadaleto passed away three years ago, it is still owned by his daughter Stacie, along with Steve Kraus of the Gadaleto family. One of the market “mongers” told me Kraus shops for seafood in the Bronx “a couple times a week.” Gadaleto’s also supplies seafood for many area restaurants, and got Readers’ Pick in the Best Fish Market category by Hudson Valley magazine the past several years.

It’s not just about finding the right place, but knowing how to choose the freshest fish. It’s generally best to go in with an open mind, rather than a specific planned menu. “A good first step is to wait until you are at the store,” says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association on the matter, “before deciding which type to buy. Here you will be able to select the freshest items in the case.”

In any market, no matter how lauded or low, start with your eyes. Look at the fish as closely as you can, then get even closer and get a good whiff. Fish should smell like nothing, or like the sea: slightly briny. If its scent is fishy, sour or ammonialike at all, put it back. It can take nerve to ask for a whiff of the fish that you’re about to buy, but do it!

Take a good look at those fillets and steaks. They should look translucent, wet and shiny, not dry, and the fibers or grains should be clinging together, not separating or pulling apart at all. Coloring should be even, without light or dark spots; and look at the edges for any drying out or mushiness that betrays that the fish is old.

If you poke the fish, an indentation should not remain, but the flesh should spring back right away. Any liquid around the fish should be clear, not milky. If you’re in a grocery store and the fish is pre-wrapped, look for a pack date and disregard the “sell by” date. That pack date should be today, or maybe yesterday in a pinch; never earlier.

Fillets are convenient and quick to cook, so whole fish is harder and harder to find; but the flavor of a fish cooked on the bone is incomparable. If you find whole fish, look at the eyes first; they should be clear rather than clouded over, and bulgy rather than sunken. The fish should be displayed on ice. Make sure that the gills are bright red or pink and moist-looking, and the scales tight and bright-looking, without dullness.

If you’re seeking shellfish, look for a place with a high turnover, ask their source and make sure that they are alive – which means that their shells are either tightly closed or briskly snap shut when you tap them. Oysters, clams and mussels should smell fresh, and don’t buy any that have broken or cracked shells. If they stay closed after cooking, discard them.

Scallops should smell good, too, and be pale with no browning, and moist but without milky liquid. Whole squid should have clear eyes like the best fish, and pristine skin, without tears. Live lobsters and crabs should be perky and lively and not too long in the tank …ask!

Sometimes frozen or previously frozen seafood is the best that you can find, and not always a bad thing. Often it is frozen at sea as soon as it’s caught, so it’s great. But if thawed it should be eaten right away and never refrozen. If you’re perusing frozen fish to buy, make sure that you can see into the package and there are no ice crystals or frost, and that the fish looks okay – not discolored or spotted. Thaw it out slowly in the fridge overnight, or more quickly, in a bowl of cold water.

Once you buy your fish, if the day is warm, put it on ice for the trip home. I carry around an insulated bag, and put some ice packs in it if I think that I might buy fish. Once you have carefully chosen your piscatorial prize, when you bring it home, put it on ice in the fridge – crushed, if you have it, to touch more surfaces of the fish – and cook it ASAP.

So choose your vendor wisely and your fish even more carefully. Fresh seafood prepared right is one of the greatest gifts to the tastebuds.

Sea Deli, Monday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m., 654 Broadway, Kingston; (845) 338-5522, www.theseadeli.com. Gadaleto’s, daily, 11 a.m.-7 p.m., 246 Main Street, New Paltz; (845) 255-1717, www.gadaletos.com. Read more about local cuisine and learn about new restaurants on Ulster Publishing’s www.DineHudsonValley.com or www.HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com.

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