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My Three Nights of Shellfish Bliss
I was on Cape Cod a couple of weeks ago, where one of the highlights, especially in “off”-season, is eating seafood. My three-night span represented a kind of typical progression. Not easily duplicated, as you’ll note, but there are aspects of it that might help seafood lovers see things differently.
Night one: We opened oysters. (Ironically, a couple of days earlier, I was offered Cape Cod’s famous Wellfleet oysters at a restaurant in Dallas; I declined, but mostly because I knew I was shortly going to be eating them locally. Otherwise…oysters travel famously well; they were shipped from the east coast nationwide and even internationally throughout the nineteenth century. This is a pretty good history.)
Anyway. Oysters. Like all of this shellfish, these came from my friend Alex at Wellfleet Shellfish Company. But they’re a bit different from the usual “Wellfleets,” almost all of which are farmed. These were wild, gathered by a local who roams the tidal flats pretty much daily. (With a license, this is legal.) They’re amazing, much different from the near-uniform farmed version: varied in age, of course, and therefore size, shape, and flavor, with some intensely full and briny, others milder, smaller, sometimes drier. They’re not all winners, but the best are among the best eastern oysters ever.
And for some reason they’re easy to open. Or maybe it’s the confidence I’ve gained with these nearly stab-proof gloves (for ultimate protection, you want chain mail, something like this). I also really love this Opinel knife, which is sturdy and effective and, unlike most oyster knives, has a fairly sharp blade so detaching meat from shell can happen pretty much at the same time as opening.
Alright. Cooking-wise, there’s nothing to say about oysters, really. At least if you’re me: My favorite way to eat them is raw, maybe with a little lemon, so that’s not a recipe. Nor is there any revelatory recipe for the lobsters that followed (but I’ve included my basic steaming method below). The things I might do differently from many people is a) to steam not boil, and b) to save every last bit of shell and uneaten portions and then reuse the lobster cooking liquid to simmer that stuff for a few minutes, until I have a strong stock; usually I wind up with three or four cups, which is ideal.
I guess I’ll note that I don’t do melted butter anymore. Not that melted butter doesn’t make the meat taste “better”—it makes most everything taste “better”—but that I’ve become more of a purist; I want to taste lobster, not butter. Again, maybe a little lemon. But not much.
Night two was scallop night: I steamed four huge, in-shell sea scallops, and we ate two of those (sadly, no pix, sorry). Important here was to steam the scallops in the lobster broth, and then save that again. Then I made pasta with scallops, garlic, and bread crumbs, using near-end-of-season local bay scallops. (That’s one of the many “thank-you-Marcella-Hazan” recipes in my repertoire; I started making it in the eighties, from The Classic Italian Cookbook. I’m not even sure whether my version is identical to hers or widely variant at this point, since I haven’t looked in years.) The bays barely need cooking: While the pasta water is coming to a boil, you combine olive oil and garlic (and maybe a chile), and cook that until the garlic is barely colored, then add some fresh bread crumbs and toast them. You cook the pasta; you toss the whole thing with the scallops over low heat, for just a minute or two, maybe with a little of the pasta cooking water if it seems dry. Period. Well, parsley if you have it.
Pasta with bay scallops
The third night is the killer. I steamed littleneck clams in the lobster-scallop broth, just until they opened a little bit. Then I shucked the clams and strained the broth. (For this I use a coffee filter, because cheesecloth isn’t fine enough. It works, if slowly.) Then I made risotto, following the usual method (check out my all-purpose seafood risotto recipe below), withholding clam meat (and a little leftover scallop meat) and using the lobster/scallop/clam broth for the rice. It’s important not to add salt: That broth is salty as seawater. (No cheese, either: sacrilege. A little butter is good.)
Risotto ready for its seafood
I’m writing this at 8:30 in the morning, the day before you’re reading it, and—man—do I want that risotto. Settling for granola, I guess.
Put a 3-pound lobster in front of someone, and you’ll be amazed at how much one person can eat. The water should be salted, which can be done in three ways: You can cook in seawater, which is nice; you can add seaweed, which is charming (and works); or you can use salt, as most of us do. Other than that, lobsters don’t need much; I used to do melted butter, now I just eat them with a tiny squeeze of lemon so I can really taste the meat. To serve any number of people, multiply this recipe accordingly.
Some sort of seafood stock is the key here, and you’ve got options: For shrimp stock, simmer shrimp shells (from about 1 or 2 pounds of shrimp) in 5 cups of water for 15 minutes. Done. You can do the same with lobster shells and legs, either raw or cooked (I use all the scraps from lobsters that I’ve cooked and devoured). For fish stock, combine 1 pound white fish bones and/or cleaned heads with some roughly chopped onion, carrot, and celery and simmer for 30 minutes. The cooking liquid from clams or mussels is also gold, so save it when you have it and add it to your stock.
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Questions, comments, brilliant suggestions? Just want to share the recipe for your grandma's potato salad, or your mom's meatloaf, or your uncle Drew's three-day 100-percent rye loaf (yes, please)? Don't hesitate to reach out anytime.