The term ‘shellfish’ is generally used to refer to edible crustaceans and molluscs, covering everything from oysters and winkles to prawns and langoustines. Though cleaning the shells and removing the meat can take a bit of work, cooking shellfish tends to be a quick and easy affair. It’s a food that’s been eaten across the globe, particularly in coastal areas, for hundreds of thousands of years.
Shellfish dishes don’t come much fresher than amaebi (spot prawn) sashimi in Japan, or more comforting than Belgium’s steaming bowls of mussels in white wine (ideally with a healthy portion of frites). Head to Singapore for crab stir-fried in a sweet yet savoury chilli sauce, or try it dressed in its shell and accompanied by new potatoes and a dollop of mayonnaise on England’s Norfolk coast. Meanwhile, in the US state of Maine — the country’s seafood capital — you can get gloriously messy with a whole steamed lobster and a pot of sweet, melted butter.
Of course, shellfish isn’t always the main event: it’s also dried and used to impart a deeply savoury umami flavour. Dried scallops are fried with chillies and seasonings to make Cantonese XO sauce, for instance, and ground dried shrimp is incorporated into spicy condiments such as shito in Ghana and balachaung in Myanmar.
The following recipes, inspired by flavours from the US, Italy and Asia, all use fresh shellfish. When preparing live clams, mussels or oysters, make sure the shells are either firmly shut or immediately close when tapped; once dead, they quickly decompose and, even after a short time, might not be safe to eat. Most shellfish are seasonal, although cultivated mussels and oysters are available year-round. If you know a good fishmonger, ask for recommendations on what’s available and sustainable.
Thomas Downing’s NYC oyster pan roast by Albert G Lukas.
Photograph by Scott Suchman
Thomas Downing’s NYC oyster pan roast by Albert G Lukas
Oysters were abundant in 19th-century America, eaten in refectories and at street stalls along the coast. New York City, at that time home to some of the East Coast’s richest oyster beds, was considered the oyster-eating capital — and it was here that African American oysterman Thomas Downing built a reputation as a leading restaurateur. He’s also the inspiration for this take on the city’s iconic creamy oyster stew. While Blue Point oysters are recommended, jumbo Pacific oysters are a good alternative in the UK.
Takes: 1 hr
36 fresh oysters, preferably Blue Point
50g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 shallot, finely diced
80ml white wine, preferably chablis
3 tbsp chilli sauce
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
240ml heavy cream
6-inch baguette, sliced into12 half-inch-thick rounds
¼ tsp Tabasco sauce
1 Shuck the oysters, being careful to reserve the liquor. Put the oysters in a medium bowl. Strain the liquor through a fine-mesh strainer into a measuring jug: you should have around 240ml liquor.
2 Heat oven to 190C, 170C fan, gas 5. Heat 15g of the butter in a stainless steel saucepan set over a gentle heat. Add the shallot and cook until tender and translucent, around 2-3 mins, being careful not to let it brown. Add the white wine and simmer until the liquid has reduced by half.
3 Once reduced, add the oyster liquor, return to a simmer and cook for an additional minute. Pour in the chilli sauce, Worcestershire sauce and heavy cream and simmer for 2 mins more until the volume is again reduced by half.
4 Meanwhile, start on the baguette crisps. Brush both sides of the baguette slices with 20g of the butter, then arrange on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until golden-brown, around 3 mins.
5 After the cream has reduced and slightly thickened, add the oysters. Poach them over a gentle simmer for no longer than 2 mins, taking care not to overcook them. They should appear slightly ruffled and lightly plumped.
6 Season with the Tabasco sauce and the remaining butter. Mix well until fully incorporated. Divide the oysters evenly among six bowls, ladle over the chilli cream and serve with the baguette crisps.
Taken from Sweet Home Cafe Cookbook by the National Museum of African American History & Culture (£26, Smithsonian Books)
Linguine with seafood by Katie & Giancarlo Caldesi.
Photograph by Helen Cathcart
Linguine with seafood (linguine ai frutti di mare) by Katie & Giancarlo Caldesi
This dish incorporates a whole host of seafood. It’s best cooked with really fresh shellfish, as the seawater trapped inside the shells is what makes it taste so good. Whole king prawns are also necessary for a great flavour, as the heads pack the biggest punch. Remember, the seafood will cook quickly, so prepare everything you need, get the pasta cooking and then finish off the sauce.
Takes: 20 mins
1kg mixed seafood, such as squid rings around 1cm thick, clams, queen scallops, mussels and raw whole king prawns
350g linguine or spaghetti
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, for frying
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
½ red chilli, finely sliced
handful of parsley, roughly chopped
50ml white wine
12 cherry tomatoes, halved
30g parmesan, finely grated
1 Start by cleaning the shellfish. Remove the beards from the mussels and drop the clams from a height of around 15cm into a bowl one by one to check for sand — it will come out as they land, if dropped from this height. Discard any that are broken and any that are open that don’t close with a tap. Remove the tails and shells from the bodies of the prawns, leaving their heads on.
2 Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta until it’s only just al dente. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large frying pan with a lid, then add the squid and fry for 2 mins. Add the rest of the seafood, along with the garlic, chilli and parsley. Put the lid on the pan and continue to cook for around 4-5 mins, shaking the pan frequently.
3 When all the shells have opened, pour in the wine and let it reduce, uncovered, until the strong smell of alcohol has dissipated. Discard any unopened shellfish. Add the cherry tomatoes and a good pinch of salt.
4 Drain the pasta, add it to the sauce and toss, letting it cook in the juices for a couple of minutes. Divide the parmesan between four warm, shallow bowls, then top with the pasta.
Taken from The Long and the Short of Pasta by Katie & Giancarlo Caldesi (£20, Hardie Grant)
Roasted scallops & congee with chilli oil by Ravinder Bhogal.
Photograph by Kristin Perers
Roasted scallops & congee with chilli oil by Ravinder Bhogal
Congee is a savoury rice porridge eaten across Asia. The rice is cooked until it disintegrates, creating a silky, creamy dish that’s regarded by many as the ultimate comfort food. It can be served plain, used as a blank canvas for the likes of eggs, fish, offal and vegetables, or be topped with condiments such as spicy pickles, fried soybeans and chilli oil. Here, it acts as a gentle base for luxurious pan-fried scallops.
Serves: 4 as a starter or a light main
Takes: 1 hr 45 mins
12 scallops, shelled and roe removed
1 tbsp rapeseed oil
ginger matchsticks, thinly sliced spring onions, crisp-fried shallots or onions, coriander sprigs and chilli oil, to garnish
For the congee
1 tbsp rapeseed oil
4 fat garlic cloves, crushed to a paste
large thumb of ginger, finely grated
350g basmati rice
750ml chicken stock
a few drops of sesame oil
white pepper, to season
1 To make the congee, heat the oil in a saucepan set over a medium-high heat, then add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry until fragrant. Add the rice, chicken stock and 2.5 litres of water and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat, half-cover with a lid and simmer, stirring occasionally, until it has a porridge consistency (this will take between 1 hr and 1hr 30 mins so it’s the kind of thing you want to start in the afternoon, so it’s ready to eat in the evening).
2 Add the sesame oil and season to taste with salt and white pepper.
3 Heat a cast-iron frying pan until it’s almost smoking. Toss the scallops in the sesame oil, season with salt and sear for 1 min, before turning and cooking on the other side for 30 seconds (the trick is to pan-fry the scallops long enough on the first side to give them a burnished, golden top).
4 Ladle the congee into shallow bowls and top each serving with three scallops. Garnish with the ginger, spring onions, shallots, coriander sprigs and a drizzle of chilli oil.
Taken from Jikoni: Proudly Inauthentic Recipes from an Immigrant Kitchen by Ravinder Bhogal (£26, Bloomsbury)
Love food and travel? Taste the world at the National Geographic Traveller Food Festival, our immersive culinary event taking place on 17-18 July 2021 at London’s Business Design Centre.
Published in Issue 11 (spring 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food
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