Cooking School Daze, Week 10

How to cook shellfish


This was the second week of learning about creatures from under the sea. Last week was all about the fins, this week, we covered the shells. Shellfish are incredibly versatile and most varieties can take on the flavors of whatever and however you cook them.


Bivalves are mollusks with two shells, top and bottom. The name makes this kind of obvious, don’t you think? Anyway, these critters include mussels, clams and oysters. Last week, we started a conversation about the sustainability of sea creatures and this week we continued with it, using the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sustainability Chart to see how safe it was to eat these bivalves. It’s actually pretty darn safe to eat these, as most are farmed. Unlike salmon and other farmed fin fish, farmed bivalves are considered good and have high standards.
When you get to a store, make sure that your purchases all come in a mesh bag. If you get them in plastic, your behind-the-counter help knows nothing about shellfish. Mollusks should all be purchased alive, so when you get them home, make sure there are no cracked shells and that all the shells are closed. If you find one open, tap on it a few times.  If it doesn’t close on its own, throw it out. That means it’s dead and dead ones go bad quickly. They taste bad because of enzymes that are secreted right after they die.

Mussels are one of the easiest mollusks to cook. The black ones are the most common. When they’re farmed, they’re raised on thick ropes in clean, clear water, so there’s no sand or dirt in them. Isn’t that nice?

No matter how you choose to cook them, they’re done in about 7-8 minutes. You can roast them on a bed of salt crystals to prop them up; you can partially cook them, then fry them (out of the shells); and then there’s the popular steaming method, where you can be more creative with your sauce. Just take out the open mussels as they open. If you’re left with a few closed ones, give them another minute or so. If they stay closed, don’t eat them! Throw them out.


These get sandy, as all clams grow underground. You need to wash them well. May gave us an interesting way to do this: cover them in water with some corn meal thrown in for about 15 minutes. The clams “eat” the corn meal and at the same time, purge any sand they might have inside their shell. Cool, huh? Otherwise, look them over as you would mussels. They have the same characteristics.

Clams are great raw, especially the smaller Cherrystones and Little Necks. You can also roast them for Clams Casino, grill them, or steam them. There are actually a lot of different kinds of clams, including soft shell clams and razors. Make sure you make just enough to eat that night, as this type of protein doesn’t reheat well.


Like clams, these are great raw. The farms that grow these are smaller and family owned. Oysters take on the flavor of wherever they’re farmed. Pacific oysters have a briny flavor while Atlantic and European (Belon) have a more mineral flavor. Whatever kind you get, don’t forget that mesh bag. I can’t stress this enough! I bet if you’re really nice, the fish market will shuck them right there for you. Unless you have a shucking knife and a mesh glove, that’s definitely the way to go.

If you’ve ever been to New Orleans, you know that the oyster po’boy is a popular way to eat these, along with steaming or boiling them for chowder.

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