Preparing divine, delicious Northwest shellfish

By Cynthia Nims, guest contributor

This article was originally published in March 2022

Shellfish salad recipe

Photo credit: Jim Henkens/Sasquatch Books

 

It’s a common refrain about great cooking: starting with top-quality ingredients takes care of much of the work. In the case of shellfish, that first step can account for almost all the work, since few other ingredients may be needed and the simplest of cooking techniques suffice for a sumptuous meal. 

A gentleman told me as much at a book signing of mine years back saying, more or less, “Who needs a recipe for Dungeness crab? You just cook it and eat it.” I understand. I’ve slurped enough oysters within view of the beds where they grew, and eaten enough crab cooked at the shoreline moments after being pulled from pots to know how exquisite that simplicity can be. Such experiences are divine and we’re lucky in the Northwest that we don’t have to drive far to have them. 

But when we’re not out enjoying shellfish at the source, we’re also fortunate how easy it is to indulge in fabulous shellfish—whether cooked simply or with delicious embellishment—at home. That’s the topic of my latest book, “Shellfish” (Sasquatch Books, $22.95) and an upcoming PCC cooking class.

Shopping for shellfish

When shopping for shellfish, what to look for varies with the type. Clams, mussels and oysters in the shell should have shells that are tightly closed or that firmly close when tapped. With oysters, don’t overlook the option of getting them in jars. For pan-frying, a gratin, oyster stew and other cooked preparations, jarred oysters are a fabulous option.

Some seafood markets sell Dungeness crab live from tanks, but the crab in stores is most often precooked, with its distinctly vivid orange color. (The crab are a purply-brick color when alive.) Look for shells without punctures and check that the crab has all 10 legs, especially the prized front claws. Bulk picked crabmeat is available, too, for a ready-to-eat treat.

Scallops are most often shucked at the time of harvest, so we usually see just the meat. “Dry pack” scallops have not been treated to retain moisture but will still be plump and glisten. Shrimp come in a range of forms: shelled and deveined, or neither, or a mix. I prefer to buy shrimp with their shells, which helps to preserve their moisture and flavor. Plus, after peeling the shrimp you can simmer the shells for a quick shrimp stock. 

Scallops and shrimp are often sold frozen as well, in which case no opaque dry spots should be visible. Most are frozen individually (IQF), so you can thaw just as many shrimp or scallops as needed, offering added flexibility. They might be coated in a thin glaze of ice, which helps prevent exposure to drying air. (When thawing, put the shellfish in a colander set in a large bowl so it sits above, not in, the accumulated water as it thaws.) 

 Once home, if you’ve purchased clams, mussels or oysters in the shell, I recommend transferring them to a colander and setting it in a large bowl to keep them perched above any drips. Arrange oysters cupped-side down as best you can to help preserve the briny liquor inside. Top the shellfish with a damp—not sopping wet—kitchen towel to keep them moist. But they need air, so don’t be tempted to cover the bowl tightly.

It’s always preferrable to enjoy shellfish sooner than later; if you can buy it the same day you’ll be cooking it, that’s ideal. But good-quality shellfish holds up well when properly stored and should be good for a couple of days. 

Here’s the fun part

Now to cooking, where the fun begins. There is everything to love about a pot of clams steamed with just a splash of white wine and handful of fresh herbs. But there’s also a lot to love about those clams steamed with beer, hard cider or dry vermouth instead. And consider adding garlic, citrus zest, sliced chiles, chopped green onion and/or minced ginger, among many other options. All the more flavorful things will be, both the clams and the broth to dunk crusty bread into while eating them. 

And no need to relegate clams to steaming, though it’s a go-to option for good reason. They can be stir-fried, stuffed or roasted in the shell, and their meats used in pasta, in fritters or on pizza. This just begins to hint at the breadth of potential cooking options, for clams and for other shellfish. Start with the classics for sure, the pan-fried oysters, the boiled shrimp, the steamed crab. From there is a delicious breadth of options to try with shellfish in the kitchen. 

Or in the backyard, as the case may be. When the season comes around, or for you grill-all-year stalwarts, shellfish are ideal grilling candidates. Oysters in their shells—whole or with the top shell removed, with garlic butter, pesto or other favorite topping at the ready. Sections of cooked, cleaned crab—maybe tossed with garlic-olive oil or soy sauce-sesame oil first—taking on a hint of nutty character as they grill. Clams or mussels enclosed in foil pouches with a dab of butter and fresh herbs. Sea scallops and shrimp on skewers, pure and simple. Because shellfish grill quickly, have other items ready to grill too, such as slices of rustic bread, skewered vegetables, sweet onion, whatever suits the menu.

Part of this ease of shellfish cooking is that there is very little in the way of special equipment needed. The one exception is an oyster knife for shucking. Otherwise you likely already have the cookware and utensils you need for most preparations. Items I use most frequently for shellfish are a 6-quart (or so) pot for steaming clams and mussels, a large soup pot for steaming crab, a cast-iron skillet for pan-frying and searing, plus various shallow pans and baking dishes for oven preparations. That’s about it.

Shellfish can adapt to most any occasion, from dinner on a busy Tuesday night to a weekend dinner party, from a backyard barbecue to a swanky celebration. With a range of shellfish to choose from—shrimp, scallops, crab and more—there’s an option to suit most everyone. Exploring all those possibilities just adds to the fun.

 

Bay Scallop Salad with Citrus and Radishes 

In this salad, citrus segments are tossed with crisp, peppery radishes and topped with warm scallops and a simple dressing that’s assembled right in the skillet. I like the brisk flavor of the lime segments contrasting with the sweeter fruits and scallops, but if that sounds too tart to you, feel free to use a bit more orange or grapefruit, or simply leave the lime out. This is an ideal lunchtime option, served with sliced baguette, or a first course for a dinner party. Serving two at dinner, consider adding a light pasta or roasted cauliflower alongside. 

 

Makes 2 to 4 servings  

12 ounces bay scallops or small sea scallops 

1 small grapefruit 

1 small navel orange 

1 small lime 

1 cup thinly sliced radishes (about half a large bunch) 

1 tablespoon mild olive oil 

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, or more mild olive oil 

½ teaspoon kosher salt 

Freshly ground black pepper 

1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives, or ½ cup coarsely chopped arugula, for serving 

 

Remove and discard the tough little side muscle if it’s present on any of the scallops. Drain the scallops on paper towels, with a piece of paper towel pressed on top if they’re particularly wet; set aside. 

Cut the segments from the grapefruit, orange and lime, collecting them together in a medium bowl. Strain the juice from the segments and set aside, and return the segments to the same bowl. If any segments are quite large, you can break them in half. Add the radishes to the citrus segments and toss gently to mix. Arrange the salad on individual plates, leaving excess juice behind in the bowl so the salads aren’t too wet. Spread the salad out a bit as a bed for the scallops.

Heat the mild olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the scallops and cook, stirring occasionally, until evenly opaque on the surface and just a touch of translucence remains at the center, 3 to 5 minutes. Take the skillet from the heat and use a slotted spoon to scoop the scallops onto the citrus salad on the plates. 

Add 3 tablespoons of the reserved citrus juice, the extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and a couple of grindings of black pepper to the skillet. Warm over medium-low heat and stir to evenly blend and incorporate the flavorful bits stuck to the bottom of the skillet, 1 to 2 minutes; the dressing will reduce a bit too. Drizzle this over the scallops and citrus, scatter the chives over, and serve right away.

 

©2022 by Cynthia Nims. Excerpted from “Shellfish” by permission of Sasquatch Books.

A lifelong Northwesterner, Cynthia Nims holds the Grand Diplome d’Etudes Culinaires from La Varenne cooking school in France. She is the author or co-author of a dozen cookbooks. 

 

PCC Cooking Classes

Interested in learning more? Hear tips for buying shellfish, how to store them, and the cooking techniques and recipes that showcase them so well.

Shellfish With Cynthia Nims

Sign up

Also in this issue

Growing for Good

More farm-fresh fruits and vegetables are coming to area food banks thanks to an exciting collaboration between PCC’s member-supported food bank program, the Neighborhood Farmers Markets and the nonprofit group Harvest Against Hunger.

Policy Report

A look at recent work from PCC’s Quality Standards Committee (QSC). The committee is a behind-the-scenes but critical part of our work to ensure socially and environmentally responsible food nourishes the communities we serve.