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Shell Game-Mollusks, Crustaceans and Cephalopods Week 10 of Chef School-Part One

Shell Game-Mollusks, Crustaceans and Cephalopods Week 10 of Chef School-Part One
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Photos by Cathy Arkle

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 2 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.

Now, 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 and 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 fast. 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 steam method, where you can be creative with your sauce. Just take out the open mussels as they happen. If you’re left with a few closed ones, give them another minute or so to open. If they stay closed, don’t eat them! Throw them out.

Now 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 a Clams Casino, grill them and 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. I like this idea, as I think it allows for a better product because of attention paid to growing them. Oysters take on the flavor of wherever they’re farmed. Pacific oysters have a briny flavor while Atlantic and European-also called ‘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, ( I will NOT do a Michael Jackson joke here….) 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, as well as steaming or boiling them for chowder.

I have to admit, I never realized that scallops were bivalves. They’re never sold in their shells, so I never thought about it. Have you? Their shells are the ones that look like a fan-like the Shell Gas logo. Granted, as a Jewish girl growing up in a kosher home, I wasn’t exactly an expert, but how many of you really knew? C’mon…admit it, you didn’t know either!

Anyway, these babies cook in minutes. The easiest way is to put some butter or oil in a pan and make it smoking hot. Then pan sear them for between 1 ½ and 3 minutes a side, depending on the size of the scallop. Make sure they’re just underdone, as they continue to cook. Another tip from May-NEVER buy wet-packed scallops. They have chemical additives. Get the dry packed ones. Always pat your scallops dry before cooking to make sure they brown well.

Squid, calamari, octopus and cuttlefish are included in this group. They have no bones. Squid can be sliced thin to sauté or to use in soups and pasta. Calamari is just small squid. You can take them, cut them in half and stuff the heads after cutting them from the tentacles. Personally, I don’t think I could do this. Even writing about it seems a little intense for my taste. I like them fried with a nice spicy tomato-based dip! Cuttlefish are huge squid with really big heads and shorter tentacles. The Italians like to braise these so the meat is nice and soft. Personally, I think these are what sunk all those ships in the 1600’s. After all, the vessels were really little back then. Octopi (yes, this is the plural!) tentacles tend to be tough, so these are best sliced thin and sautéed or grilled.

There’s a lot to learn about shellfish and we hadn’t even gotten to the crustaceans, yet! These are my personal favorites. I’ll save those for part two. Here’s a wonderful mussel recipe from this evening’s lesson. It’s a little ambitious, but worth every bite!

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