Shellfish

Shellfish

By
Leiths School of Food and Wine
Contains
29 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781849493192
Photographer
Peter Cassidy

Preparing shellfish can seem time-consuming, but the reward is in the eating. Shellfish can be divided into two main categories: crustaceans and molluscs. Crustaceans are all the multi-jointed creatures such as crab, lobster, langoustines and prawns. Molluscs include clams, mussels, scallops, oysters, squid and octopus. It is vital to cook and eat shellfish when they are very fresh, as they deteriorate quickly and can cause food poisoning. Ideally they should be bought live from a reputable supplier and cooked within 24 hours. If you cannot source live shellfish, buy freshly prepared uncooked or cooked shellfish.

Crustaceans

Most of these shellfish are graded and sold according to size, and in certain countries it is illegal to buy very small ones. However, bigger does not necessarily equate to better, so look for medium-sized shellfish where possible. All live shellfish bought from a fishmonger in this country will have health certification so it is best to buy from one if you can. If gathering your own, be aware that shellfish gathered from polluted waters can present a health risk; gather from the sea rather than from estuaries or harbours.

Prawns

Prawns can be purchased raw or cooked, with heads on or off. It is most economical to buy tails only, as more meat is obtained by weight. However, a whole prawn has more flavour, as do the heads and shells of any shellfish. Even if you are buying them pre-cooked, they will be full of flavour and can be used to produce excellent stocks and sauces.

Prawns are generally graded by size for sale and are sold by weight, so the bigger they are the more expensive they will be. As an approximate guide, 20–25 prawns per kg yields prawns of a suitable size for most recipes.

Unless local and fresh, prawns are either cooked as soon as they are caught or are deep frozen because, as in the case of crab and lobster, the meat loses flavour and texture very quickly. So even when a sign in a fishmonger says ‘fresh prawns’, unless locally caught, they may be frozen and defrosted. Where possible buy prawns still frozen, rather than defrosted, as they deteriorate quickly after defrosting. When checking for freshness, look for tails that are still firm and taut. There should be no obvious discolouration.

Preparing and peeling raw prawns

1. Hold the prawn by the tail. Using your other hand, twist the head and pull it away from the tail. Put the heads aside (they can be frozen along with the tail shells and used later to make shellfish stock).

2. The tail shells are soft and hinged and can be removed piece by piece or in several pieces at a time. Start to peel away the shells from the underbelly of the prawn. The tail tip can be kept on or carefully removed.

3. Make a shallow incision, 1–2 mm deep, down the length of the back of the tail to expose the intestinal tract. (This is usually dark, but it can be almost translucent.) Carefully pull this away and discard. The prawn tails are now ready to cook.

Butterflying raw prawns shell off

1. Holding the shelled prawn between the fingers and thumb, make a shallow incision, along the length of the back of the tail to expose the intestinal tract.

2. Carefully pull this thread away and discard.

3. Cut deeper along the natural line down the middle of the back, halfway through the prawn, to butterfly it, leaving the tail tip intact.

Butterflying prawns shell on

After pulling away the head, turn the prawn over so it is belly side up and pull away the small legs. Cut halfway through the prawn, through the belly, keeping the tail tip intact.

Preparing raw prawns for cooking shell on

1. To remove the intestinal tract, bend the prawn a little at the point where the head meets the tail. Using a small knife or cocktail stick, isolate and break the intestinal tract. Bend the prawn before the last tail section, to separate the tail sections. Using the point of a small knife or cocktail stick, hook the intestinal tract from underneath and gently tug at it.

2. As it has been released at the head end it should be possible to pull the intestinal tract through the length of the tail and out quite easily. Do not pull too firmly or it will break.

3. On larger prawns, you can tug and twist at the little triangular shell on top of the tail, which the intestinal tract is attached to, and gently pull out the tract.

Langoustines

Also known as Dublin Bay prawns or scampi, langoustines are orangey-pink in colour when live. When buying live, select medium-sized langoustines, which have all their legs and pincers intact, and ideally are moving and not limp. They should feel heavy for their size, as this indicates good muscle quality.

If storing before cooking, place the langoustines in a container in the bottom of the fridge covered with a damp tea towel. Do not store for longer than 24 hours.

When buying cooked langoustines, ensure the tail flicks back quickly when opened a little, as this indicates it was in a good condition when cooked.

Cooking langoustines whole

1. Before cooking live langoustines, place them in the freezer for 15 minutes to sedate them.

2. When ready to cook, bring a large saucepan of well salted water to the boil (use about 25–30 g salt per litre of water).

3. Add the langoustines to the pan, cover and bring back to the boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and cook for 2–5 minutes, depending on size. The tails will curl but there will be no change in shell colour. Remove from the water and leave to drain and cool.

Preparing langoustines for grilling

1. Put the langoustine belly side down on a board and cut down through the head and tail to divide in half.

2. Remove the grit or stomach sac from each langoustine half.

3. Remove the intestinal tract from the tail. Any liver in the head area can be left in or spooned out and used in a sauce.

Peeling cooked whole langoustines

Generally only the tail meat of langoustines is used, unless the claws are large, in which case it is well worth the effort of extracting the meat.

1. Twist the langoustine and pull the head from the tail.

2. To extract the tail meat, turn it belly side up and, with a pair of scissors, cut down on either side of the belly shell.

3. Pull the flap of shell back and lift out the tail meat.

4. Either make a shallow cut across the top of the tail to extract the intestinal tract or cut the tail in half and remove the tract. It depends if the tail is to be served whole or not.

5. If the langoustine claws are a good size, crack them with the back of a knife (as for lobster claws, step 11) and use a lobster pick to extract the meat.

6. The liver can be removed from the head if you plan to use it.

Lobster

When buying a lobster, look for a medium-sized one that feels heavy for its size, indicating good muscle quality, with all legs and pincers intact and not hanging limply. The lobster must be alive, show lots of muscular activity, such as tail flapping, and there must be no frothing at the mouth, which can indicate stress. To store live lobsters before cooking, place in a large container in the bottom of the fridge with a damp tea towel over them. Do not remove the elastic bands from the pincers until after cooking. Only buy cooked lobsters from a trusted source. You can either cook lobsters whole, then remove the meat, or halve and grill them.

Cooking a lobster whole

1. Before cooking the live lobster, place in the freezer for 20 minutes to sedate it.

2. Take the lobster from the freezer, place on a board and uncurl the tail and legs. Place a tea towel over the tail and hold on to the tail. To cut through the head, locate the cross on top of the carapace/body shell and place the point of a large, sharp knife in the centre of the cross with the blade towards the head. Push down and then back firmly so the knife penetrates the shell and cuts through the head.

3. Meanwhile, bring a large saucepan of well salted water to the boil (about 25–30 g salt per 1 litre of water).

4. Place the lobster head first into the boiling water, ensuring it is completely covered in water, then put the lid on the pan and bring the water back to the boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook gently for about 8–10 minutes per 500 g, until the lobster turns red and the tail tightens against the body. If cooking more than 2 lobsters, cook in batches. Once cooked, remove the lobster from the water and leave to drain well as it cools, before further preparation.

Note: You can use a court bouillon to cook the lobster, or more spicy flavours such as ginger, star anise or lemongrass can be added to the water.

Removing the meat from a cooked whole lobster

1. Twist and pull the head from the tail. Set the head aside.

2. Using a pair of scissors, cut down either side of the belly shell the length of the tail, where the shell is soft and pliable.

3. Peel away the belly shell, then carefully extract the tail meat.

4. Depending on how you want to serve the tail meat, the intestinal tract can be removed by making a shallow cut along the back of the tail and removing the tract (as for prawns). Alternatively, cut the tail in half lengthways, then extract and discard the tract.

5. For the head, twist and pull away the large pincers.

6. Pull away the legs and remove and discard the feathery gills (dead man’s fingers).

7. Behind the eyes and mouth is the grit, or stomach sac; remove and discard this.

8. Also inside the body will be the liver (tomalley), which will have changed colour from grey to greenish grey when cooked. This is a delicacy and can be kept and eaten, so carefully scoop it out using a teaspoon.

9. Often you will also come across roe (coral) which will be a deep red once cooked. The roe is also a delicacy and can be eaten as is or used to flavour and colour a sauce; spoon this out too.

10. Break the pincers at the joints. Use a crab/lobster pick or skewer to extract the meat from the crevaces below the claws.

11. For the claws, use the back of a large knife or a meat pounder to crack the main claw shell, but try not to crush the claw completely if using a pounder. It is often necessary to crack the shell on both sides.

12. Carefully remove any small bits of shell and discard, then gently pull the shell from the claw meat. If carefully done, the claw meat can be removed whole.

13. Once removed, locate and extract the feather-like internal bone that runs through the centre of the claws.

14. Break the legs at the joints and use a skewer to remove the white meat.

15. The shell, claw and leg pieces can be kept to make a shellfish stock and can be frozen until ready to use. The lobster meat is ready for use.

Serving simply boiled lobster

Allow ½ lobster per person. Split the cooked lobsters in half lengthways and remove and discard the intestine from the tail and the stomach sac from the head. Serve either hot, with hollandaise or beurre blanc, or simply with clarified butter, or cold, with mayonnaise.

Preparing a live lobster for grilling

1. First place the live lobster in the freezer for about 20 minutes, to sedate it.

2. Remove the lobster from the freezer, place on a board and uncurl the tail and legs. Place a tea towel over the tail. Hold on to the tail.

3. To cut through the head and kill the lobster, locate the cross on top of the carapace/body shell and place the point of a large, very sharp knife in the centre with the blade towards the head. Push down and then back firmly so the knife penetrates the shell and cuts through the head.

4. Lift the tea towel, turn the lobster around and place the tea towel on the head. Repeat the process for the tail, cutting through the shell, as for the head.

5. Put aside the tea towel and turn the lobster halves cut side up. Remove the intestinal tract and discard.

6. Scoop out the grit or stomach sac from behind the mouth and eyes and discard. This will have been cut in two, so both halves will need to be removed.

7. Crack the pincers with the back of a large knife to allow the heat to penetrate through to the meat more quickly.

Crab

Buy live crabs where possible, as you can then be sure how fresh they are. Look for medium-sized crabs that are evidently alive with clear signs of muscular activity, such as legs and claws moving. They should have all their pincers and legs intact and feel heavy for their size, which indicates good muscle quality. They are best stored in a container, covered with a damp tea towel in the bottom of the fridge until ready to cook.

Preparing a live crab for cooking

First place the live crab in the freezer for 20 minutes to sedate it.

1. Holding the crab at the back to avoid the claws, take it from the freezer and place upside down on a board. Now lift the apron. On a male crab this will be very narrow; on a female crab it will be much wider.

2. Beneath the apron is a hole. Place the point of a steel or thick skewer on the hole.

3. Push the steel down firmly, inserting it into the crab.

4. Move the steel back and forth 2 or 3 times. The claws and legs will become still and limp. Remove the steel.

5. To ensure the crab is dead, turn it over, locate the eyes and insert a skewer between them, about 2 cm deep.

6. Move the skewer from side to side, then remove it. The crab is now ready for cooking.

Cooking a crab whole

1. Once you have prepared your sedated crab, bring a large saucepan of well salted water to the boil (about 25–30 g salt per 1 litre of water).

2. Put the crab into the pan of boiling water, ensuring it is completely covered in water, then cover the saucepan with a lid and bring the water back to the boil. Immediately lower the heat to a simmer and gently cook for about 10–15 minutes per 500 g, until the crab turns deep orange. A small to medium crab will take about 15 minutes; a larger one will take 20 minutes or more. A crab over 1 kg will take about 25 minutes.

3. Once cooked, remove the crab from the water and place in a bowl. Leave to drain and cool completely before further preparation.

Preparing a cooked crab

1. Twist and pull away the claws and the legs from the body and place in a bowl. Take care to remove the leg knuckles along with the legs.

2. Place the crab upside down on a board, eyes away from you, then lift up and pull off the apron. Place your thumbs at the bottom of the crab on the base of the apron, on either side of the internal body. Push up firmly to release the internal body of the crab and pull away.

3. Pull away and discard the feathery finger-like gills, called ‘dead man’s fingers’.

4. The internal body contains a little brown meat, but mainly white meat; the claws and legs contain white meat and the main outer crab shell contains brown meat. Turn the internal body over and scrape away the brown meat into a bowl, then put the internal body aside and deal with the main shell.

5. Put the main crab shell, shell side down and eyes towards you, on a board, and locate the little piece of shell immediately behind the eyes. Push down firmly to snap this from the main shell; lift it out and away and discard it (it contains the mouth and stomach).

6. Using a teaspoon, scrape all the brown meat from the shell into a bowl. If the shell is to be used for serving, for a dressed crab for example, remove the inner shell by pressing down firmly along the natural line on both sides of the underside of the shell, then scrub and rinse the shell under cold water to clean completely. Set aside.

7. The internal body is made up of a honeycomb of little compartments divided by very fine shell. It is imperative to avoid getting shell in the crab meat and the best way to reach the white meat is to cut the body in half.

8. Using a crab pick or the tapered handle of a teaspoon or a skewer, carefully pick out the white meat into a separate bowl from the brown meat. It is surprising how much white meat is located in this structure, so make sure you extract all of it. Once all the meat has been removed, the internal body should be hollow and can be discarded.

9. Break the legs at the joints. Use a crab pick or skewer to extract the meat.

10. For the claws, use the back of a large knife or a meat pounder to crack the main claw shell, but try not to crush the claw completely if using a pounder. It is often necessary to crack the shell on both sides.

11. Carefully remove any small bits of shell and discard, then gently pull the shell from the claw meat. If carefully done the claw meat can be removed whole.

12. Once removed, locate and extract the feather-like internal bone that runs through the centre of the claws. For the claw joints, repeat as for the leg joints, using a skewer to remove the white meat.

13. The shell, claw and leg pieces can be kept to make a shellfish stock, and can be frozen until ready to use.

14. Stir through the brown meat to check no shell has been left in.

15. Scatter the white meat, except for any large whole claw pieces, over a large tray and work through it carefully with your fingertips to check for any fragments of shell. It is a good idea to repeat this task. Return the white meat to the bowl. The crab is now ready to use.

To prepare soft shell crabs

1. Cut off the eye and mouth area of the soft shell crabs, taking off about 5–8 mm.

2. Hook out the stomach from the opening (this is a small, soft sac).

3. Lift up the sides of the top shell and dig out the feathery finger/gills, then turn the crab over and pull away the apron.

Molluscs

Molluscs include gastropods, such as limpets and snails, and bivalves, such as clams, mussels and oysters. Once they have been cleaned, they offer huge potential to the cook. Bivalves in particular require careful cleaning and preparation, but are very quick to cook. A scallop, grilled in its shell with a little butter, parsley and garlic, is a real treat yet requires little effort to prepare and is ready in just a few minutes.

Mussels and clams

All mussels and clams must be alive before cooking to ensure they are fresh. Their shells should be closed. Any open shells should close when tapped or squeezed together; if not, discard them as this indicates the mollusc is dead. Throw away any that have broken or damaged shells too. It is also advisable to avoid buying any mussels or clams from a batch where a large number of shells are open, as this indicates that they have been out of the sea for a while and are not fresh.

Store mussels and clams in a dry container in the bottom of the fridge, covered with a damp tea towel. Try not to prepare mussels too far in advance of cooking, as they don’t keep well once the ‘beard’ is removed.

Preparing mussels for cooking

1. First rinse the mussels under cold running water, then scrub the shells with a scourer or scrubbing brush to clean them thoroughly.

2. Pull away the ‘beard’ (seaweed-like thread) attached to the side of each mussel. Throw away any mussels that are cracked.

3. Tap any open mussels on the side of the bowl or on the work surface; they will close if alive. Any that remain opened should be discarded.

Preparing clams

Clams are cleaned in the same way as mussels, except that they do not have a beard to pull away. It is important to wash them thoroughly in several changes of water to remove sand and grit. As for mussels, before cooking check that they are alive and discard any with damaged shells.

Scallops

When buying scallops, look for live, closed ones. If they are open, tap the shell or squeeze the shell halves together; the scallop should close. Avoid scallops with broken shells. If many of those on offer are open, avoid buying as this suggests that they are not fresh. You can also buy shelled fresh or frozen scallops, the fresh out-of-shell being superior in flavour and texture to frozen, defrosted scallops. Diver-caught scallops, although expensive, are worth the extra cost as they are more environmentally friendly, and dredged scallops can be gritty and muddy.

Scallops can be kept in a container in the bottom of the fridge, covered with a damp tea towel, and cooked within 24 hours.

Shelling scallops

1. Place the scallop rounded side uppermost on a board. Insert the point of a cutlery knife close to the hinge and prise the shell open a little by twisting the knife.

2. Insert the knife a little more. The shells will start to open, but will be held together by the muscle and hinge. Keeping the knife flat against the bottom flat shell, insert it fully and move it from side to side to release the scallop from the shell.

3. Once the scallop is released, the top rounded shell can be easily lifted off, with the scallop still attached, breaking the black rubber-like hinge. Discard the bottom flat shell.

4. With the rounded side of the shell against the board, and the knife against the shell, release the scallop from the rounded shell.

5. Gently pull away the frill and dark stomach sac that surrounds the scallop, and discard. Take care to avoid pulling away the coral.

6. Carefully pull away and discard the small white ligament, attached to the side of the scallop by a thin membrane. Just the white scallop with the coral attached will be left.

Oysters

Buy live oysters, store them covered with a damp tea towel in a container in the bottom of the fridge and use within 24 hours. If you’re intending to open them yourself (rather than ask the fishmonger), you will need an oyster knife (shucker). It takes practice, but opening your own oysters means that you retain the juices. Freshly shucked oysters are delicious served raw with a simple dressing.

Opening oysters

1. Wrap the hand that will hold the oyster in a tea towel. Place the oyster rounded side down, flat side up, in the palm of this hand, with the narrower end towards you.

2. Push the point of the oyster knife into the hinge, located at the narrower end of the shell. Just to the left of the ‘point’ of the narrow end is a good place to insert the knife.

3. Firmly twist the knife back and forth until the hinge is broken.

4. Slide the knife between the shells to cut through the ligament and twist one side of the knife upwards to lever up the top shell.

5. Lift off the top shell and discard it.

6. Carefully release the oyster from the bottom shell using the knife, making sure you retain the juices, and pick away any bits of shell.

Dressings to serve with raw oysters

Serve your opened oysters in their half-shell on a platter with a bowl of one of the following sauces. Each serves 4.

Shallot and red wine dressing: Peel and very finely dice ½–1 small banana shallot. Mix with 100 ml red wine vinegar, a small pinch of sugar and a little salt and pepper.

Cucumber and ginger dressing: Peel, deseed and very finely dice ½ cucumber. Halve, peel and very finely dice 1 red Asian shallot or ¼ small red onion. Peel and very finely grate a 1cm piece of fresh root ginger. Put the cucumber and shallot or onion in a bowl with 100 ml rice wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon soy sauce and 1½ teaspoon palm sugar; stir well, to dissolve the sugar. Add the grated ginger to taste.

Bloody Mary dressing: Make one-third of the dressing for tian of crab and avocado.

Cephalopods

Cephalopods are characterised by the ring of tentacles around their mouths, and include squid, octopus and cuttlefish. Octopus needs long, slow cooking to tenderise its tough flesh. Squid is more versatile and can be cooked very quickly on a hot grill or frying pan; or slowly, during which time it will become firm, and then tender again.

Squid

Squid comes in a variety of sizes, but you should choose those with bodies about or just bigger than the length of your fingers and hand. When choosing squid, smell it; it should be almost odourless – any hint of ammonia indicates a lack of freshness. Ask the fishmonger to prepare it for you or follow the steps below. Although it is possible to buy frozen squid tubes, the flavour of fresh is better.

Preparing squid

1. Hold the body in one hand and the tentacles in the other and pull them apart; a gentle tug is enough. The intestines will come away with the tentacles. Set aside the body of the squid for further preparation.

2. Cut the tentacles from the head, just above the eyes on the tentacle side.

3. If using the squid ink, look through the intestines for a thin, silvery-pearly tube that is the ink sac. Carefully cut it from the intestines; avoid pressing or cutting into it or you will lose the ink. Set aside the ink sac. Discard the head and intestines.

4. Still working on the tentacles, find the mouth, which is in the centre of the base of the tentacles where they join the head. Squeeze out and discard the mouth, including the beak.

5. Cut off the 2 long tentacles, then cut these into bite-sized pieces. If the rest of the tentacles are very large, cut them into large bite-sized pieces. If small, leave whole. Rinse and set aside.

6. Reach inside the body cavity and feel for something firm against the side of the body, which is the feather-shaped quill. Gently pull it out and discard.

7. Pull away the 2 fins on either side of the body. Pull and peel away the brownish-pink skin covering the body and fins. Rinse the body in cold water and dry it well.

8. Place the body on the board and turn it to find the natural line where the quill was attached. Insert a sharp knife (a fish filleting knife is ideal) into the body and cut the body open along this line. Scrape the inside of the body carefully with the knife blade to remove the membrane and any remaining innards. Rinse and dry well with kitchen paper.

9. Using a sharp knife, score the inside of the body in a diamond pattern. You need to score the flesh about one-third of the way through, so use a light touch. Once scored, cut the body into large bite-sized squares or rectangles (about 4–5 cm). Combine the body pieces with the tentacles, ready for cooking.

For squid rings

Choose small to medium squid and follow the above technique to the end of step 7. At this stage pull away any remaining membrane and innards. Ensure you rinse out the inside of the body well and dry it. Cut across the body into pieces about 1 cm wide.

Sea urchins

Sea urchins are hard to come by but worth seeking out. It is the delicate roe that is eaten. In Italy, it forms a topping for bruschetta, whereas in Korea and Japan, it is often served with sushi rice.

Preparing sea urchins

1. Sea urchins are commonly black, but they are available in a range of colours including purple, deep red and pale beige.

2. Protect the hand that will hold the sea urchin in a tea towel. Place the sea urchin in the palm of this hand with the mouth (soft part in the underside) uppermost.

3. Using sharp scissors, insert the tip into the centre of the mouth and cut through the spiky shell to create a large hole, 4–5 cm in diameter.

4. Remove and discard the disc of shell and pour away any juices.

5. Carefully scoop out and discard the black parts inside the sea urchin, leaving the roe intact.

6. The orange roe sits in little clusters. Use a teaspoon to carefully remove each cluster.

Serving sea urchins

Sea urchins can be served as for oysters after preparation, with the same dressings as oysters. Alternatively, add the roe to just-cooked and drained pasta that has been tossed in an olive oil, garlic and lemon juice dressing with a little coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley. The heat of the pasta will gently cook the roe.

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