Writer in the Kitchen: Camaje Part II
The shopping was complete — it was time to get in the kitchen.
After spending a sunny Saturday morning learning about how to buy fish in Chinatown — as part of Chef Abigail Hitchcock’s Chinatown Shop & Cook cooking class — we hopped in a cab and sped towards Greenwich Village. With bags full of fresh fish and produce, we opened the door to Camaje, her neighborhood bistro on MacDougal Street.
If you’ve ever felt frustrated at a disorganized cooking class, the classes at Camaje are for you. We walked in to find neatly stapled packets of all the day’s recipes, complete with notes on buying and filleting fish. All the ingredients we needed were neatly stacked next to a long wooden table. The knives were sharpened. It was time to get to work.
The afternoon was a flurry of activity in the kitchen and out in the dining room at the chopping board. Abby started the afternoon with some basic knife skills, demonstrating how to chop an onion, all while chatting about the nuances between onions and shallots. Next up demonstration wise was garlic, then herbs. With our basic knife lesson, we were off to chop and mince, preparing all the ingredients for our fish feast.
Over the course of a 5-hour cooking class (1oam to 3pm) Abby manages to keep things interesting and fresh. Right as I finished chopping some garlic, we were all ushered into the kitchen for a lesson in filleting fish. At the market we bought some whole branzino and black sea bass, had them gutted and scaled, leaving only the task of filleting. Abby demonstrated first: with a somewhat flexible knife, she felt where the fillet began, and made a horizontal incision beneath the head of the fish. Then feeling the bone, and bringing the knife as close as possible to it, she sliced down towards the tail of the fish. A few more cuts and a fresh fillet was ready to be thrown into a hot pan.
Back at the chopping board, we were dicing mango for a salsa to accompany grilled tuna. We snacked on the juicy fruit while following the directions on our recipe lists. With 7 participants, it was easy to divide tasks, maximizing the potential for our afternoon feast.
Each person took a turn in the kitchen filleting fish. When everyone had succeeded, we all marched back into the kitchen to learn how to make fish stock. Unlike other stocks, “fish stock is quick and rewarding,” Abby said. Instead of waiting hours for a chicken or beef stock to be ready, fish stock only takes an hour. Abby’s assistant showed us how it was done, first adding in onions, celery, carrots, bay leaves, parsley, thyme, and peppercorns. Just a few minutes cooking in some olive oil and the aroma in the kitchen was wonderful. A few minutes, a few fish heads, and some wine later, the stock was bubbling away on the stovetop.
With all of our ingredients prepped, it was time to stay in the kitchen. With toothpicks we ate shrimp and scallops hot out of the pan. We learned techniques for grilling tuna and sardines. Abby also shared her love of the science of cooking by demonstrating how to know when a pan is good and hot, ready for fish. “Splash a little water in the pan — the droplets should really dance. If they don’t dance, the pan isn’t hot enough yet. Let it heat some more.” We all leaned towards the stovetop to witness this phenomenon, and when the water danced, it was time to sear our fish.
One dish I was really looking forward to is a seafood stew with saffron and tomatoes, on the menu at Camaje. With mussels, shrimp, scallops, and the unmistakeable addition of saffron, this isn’t your average seafood stew.
Quickly our ambitious menu began to come together. All of the food was arranged on a table in the kitchen, and while everything was hot, we all grabbed a plate to taste the fruit of our labor. Taking a seat in the dining room, I didn’t know where to begin: the whole, smoky sardines? Dip some crusty bread into the seafood stew? Arrange the perfect amount of mango salsa on a piece of grilled, rare tuna?
We all devoured this fish feast with a glass of wine. In between bites we asked Abby questions on the dishes and she shared more tips on how to cook fish in an easy and quick way. And the most amazing part? Camaje was open for lunch on a Saturday during this class. As a bonus we got to experience what it’s like in a busy restaurant kitchen.
As we gathered our things, the first few students for the evening sushi class began to arrive. Not only is Abby passionate about cooking, but she is fantastic at communicating that passion through accessible classes. I’ll be back.
Disclosure notice: All opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.