Happy as a Clam…or Mussel

In anticipation of the long Labor Day weekend ahead, I decided to celebrate a little bit tonight and made linguine and broccoli with mussels cooked in a garlic/white wine sauce (the recipe originally called for both mussels and clams, but even lacking the latter, Alex was as happy as one). Yeah, yeah, I know, you can hardly see anything but the mussels in the photo. That’s because it was more cost-effective for me to buy a 2-pound bag of mussels rather than individual mussels today at my local Whole Foods. And as my seafood guy reminded me, you gotta cook ’em all the day you buy ’em. Needless to say, Alex and I ate a lot of mussels.

(Why, yes, I did play around with editing this photo!)

Nothing beats the smell of lifting the lid of a pot on the stove and inhaling the aroma of garlic and mussels simmering in white wine. (New cologne, anyone?) But while we’re on the subject, I thought I’d share a couple practical tips when cooking seafood:

1. Fresh is best. Sure, you can get frozen seafood these days – shrimp and scallops are good stand-bys. But nothing beats fresh. How do you tell if something’s fresh? Smell it. It shouldn’t smell “fishy” but more like the ocean or salty air. If it’s a fish, it should “look” clean too–not grungy and slimy and cloudy. Remember the words of my seafood guy: you gotta eat ’em the day you buy ’em. (Oh, and how will you know if something’s not fresh? It will smell. I brought home a pound of shell-on shrimp the other day and one or two shrimps were the olfactory offenders. Everything they touched smelled for days. Yuck!)

2. Test your shells for shellshock. Mussels and clams are amusing little creatures. After transporting your mollusks home on ice, it’s time for a little quality control: check to make sure that the shells are slightly open and in good shape (i.e., no major cracks or chips). When you tap them, or knock them against each other in a colander, for example, they should close up. Tightly. This is how you know they’re still alive. Give them a good rinse (and scrub, if they’re clams) and then keep them on ice or in the fridge while you get the rest of your meal ready to go. When you cook them, they should open up and turn a lovely shade of peach-champagne. That’s how you’ll know they’re done.

3. Coach your clean up crew. Cooking seafood in cast-iron is not necessarily the best idea in the world, especially when your pan or skillet or whatever are fairly new (even if it comes “pre-seasoned”). This is because it will retain that “fishy” smell. Again, I know this from experience, and since I don’t really have any other cookware alternatives at this point in time, that’s what I use. I am pleased to report that some simple cleaning solutions can generally get rid of this unpleasantness. After rinsing out the pot, sprinkle in some baking soda and scrub it around the pan. (If stuff is really stuck on, you might follow this scrub with a splash of white vinegar). Rinse again until the water runs clear and then dry thoroughly. Pour about 1 tablespoon of canola oil (or other neutral-flavored oil) and rub it all around the pan with a paper towel. Put the cleaned pot in the oven at 210 degrees F for 10-15 minutes, then remove–good as new. (For more on cleaning cast iron, check this out).

4. Give your lemon a squeezy. I love the fresh brightness that a good squeeze of lemon brings to seafood dishes. I also love things that can multitask, and the lemon is one of them. After working with or eating seafood, and after you’ve squeezed some lemon juice over your meal, rub the lemon pulp remains over your fingertips to help remove any lingering fish smell. (At restaurants, I often do this and then “rinse” my hands by rubbing the condensation on the outside of my water glass…with the most discrete tact manageable, of course). Another tip is to put your entire lemon half or wedge into the running garbage disposal. Sounds scary at first–but it definitely freshens up your garbage disposal and lets those lemon essential oils tackle any fish gunk that may have made it down your sink, Nemo-style. Easy peezy!

Have I missed something? What are your favorite fruits of the sea? What’s your preferred method of cleaning post-seafood-op? Swap your fish tales by leaving a comment.

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