Of all the foods which come from the sea, shellfish are perhaps the most intriguing and the most exotic. Shellfish dishes command the highest prices in our restaurants, and for many people, particularly those who live inland, shellfish are reserved for special occasions.
The nutritional benefits of shellfish, as well as their spectacular versatility, mean that many people would be better off indulging just a little more frequently. Shellfish are broadly divided into crustaceans – crabs, lobsters and the like – and molluscs, with a few oddities such as sea urchins thrown in.
These days, most seafood shops, even ones located far inland, generally sell a variety of shellfish. The most common are undoubtedly oysters and scallops, as well as squid (usually sold as calamari), prawns and lobsters, but some of the bigger retailers regularly offer a whole range of shellfish, including cuttlefish, whelks, mussels and abalone.
Nutritionally, shellfish are very good sources of protein, iron, iodine and a range of vitamins. They are low in calories and have very little fat. Although most shellfish contain cholesterol, this is now thought to be pretty insignificant in terms of raising blood cholesterol levels, compared with the real culprit, which is the saturated fat found in some other foods. Most shellfish also contain Omega 3 fatty acids, which can help prevent heart disease and blood clots.
Shellfish are best eaten as fresh as possible, preferably on the day they are bought. They should be stored in the coldest part of the fridge and if they are bought frozen (or thawed) they should never be refrozen.
Live molluscs, such as oysters and mussels, should have closed shells. Crustaceans should be firm, not soggy. For most shellfish, particularly molluscs, delicate cooking is the key to enjoyment. Many shellfish have flesh which can easily become tough if it is over-cooked even by a few minutes.
The most common commercially available molluscs include:
Most people believe that abalone flesh should be thinly sliced, and beaten with a mallet, or left whole and beaten flat before cooking, as it is tough if cooked untreated.
2. Cockles and Pipis
The real cockle has a grey-green circular shell with concentric ridges. The pipi has a triangular or wedge-shaped smooth shell which comes in a range of colors. Both molluscs, are occasionally available commercially. The flesh of both toughens quickly if the molluscs are over-cooked.
Mussels have a soft, yellowish flesh with a rich flavor, and are a highly prized form of seafood. After purchase, they should be stored in a bucket of water. Any mussels with slightly open shells should be discarded. Mussels can be steamed, boiled, barbecued or even microwaved until the shells open.
The shells from dead cuttlefish litter beaches after storms and many people give them to pet birds to peck at. The live cuttlefish is a squid-shaped shellfish and its mild-flavored flesh can be prepared in much the same way as calamari.
Octopus is an eight-legged mollusc. The smaller the octopus, the more tender the meat.
Oyster is the king of the molluscs, the oyster is one of nature’s richest sources of iron and zinc and has virtually no fat. The flesh is a creamy grey color, with a mild seafood taste.
Scallop is another highly prized shellfish, with soft white flesh set off by a distinctive bright orange “coral”. Scallops must be cooked quickly, over a high heat, and cooked scallops should never, ever, be reheated.
Squid is one of the most readily available fresh sea foods. It is sometimes sold whole, but many people prefer to buy it in the form of calamari rings. Unlike some sea foods, squid freezes well without much loss of flavor or texture. The raw flesh is almost transparent, becoming opaque when the squid is cooked.
Echinoderms. The hard, spiny shell conceals a full-flavored red roe, which is considered a particular delicacy in some parts of the world. The roe can be eaten by itself, or made into a sauce to be served with fish dishes.
The other major group of shellfish are the crustaceans.
The most common of crustaceans are the prawns, which range from the tiny school prawns to the giant king prawns. Prawns are cooked by boiling, or sometimes grilling. Salt in the cooking water toughens the flesh, so resist the temptation.
Scampi are small crustaceans similar in appearance and taste to prawns.
3. Balmain Bugs and Moreton Bay Bugs
They are species of sand lobster. Their flavor rivals that of the more expensive rock lobster.
Several varieties of crab are sold commercially, the most common being mud crabs, blue swimmer crabs and spanner crabs.
Here are a few recipes of shellfish dishes. Keep your eye out for the more unusual shellfish at your local fishmonger, and when the occasion arises, enjoy something a bit different for dinner.
1. Spiced Pipis in the Half Shell
- 18 pipis or cockles a person
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 4 tbsp white wine
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tbsp chopped parsley
- 1 tsp dry mustard
- ¼ tsp ground ginger
- ¼ tsp paprika
- 3 tbsp finely chopped spring onion
- 1 clove minced garlic
- ¼ tsp black pepper.
Carefully open the pipis and remove the meat. Make sure they are not gritty. If they are, rinse under cold water. Retain the pipi liquid and pour into a small mixing bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and mix.
Add the pipis and marinate for 20 minutes. Return the pipis and a little of the marinade to the half shell. Sit the pipis in a shallow baking tray full of rock salt (to stop them tipping over) and grill for three minutes. Serve.
2. Octopus Teriyaki
- 750g octopus
- 1 tbsp sake (rice wine)
- 4 tbsp soy sauce
- 3 tbsp mirin (sweet rice wine)
- 2cm piece fresh ginger, grated
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 tsp sugar
- Sliced spring onion as garnish
Remove the skin from the octopus and cut into bite-sized pieces. Marinate for one hour in mixture of sake, soy sauce, 2 tablespoons of the mirin, and ginger. Heat the oil in a large frypan and cook drained octopus in the oil for one minute. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside.
Add the marinade to the cooking oil with the remaining mirin and the sugar, bring to simmering point, return octopus to the pan and simmer until the liquid has almost evaporated. Serve garnished with spring onion and with remaining sauce spooned over.
3. Bugs with Brandy Sauce
- 4 to 6 green bugs a person
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic
- ¼ cup chopped spring onion
- 2 tbsp chopped celery tops
- ½ cup brandy
- 1 cup hock or dry cider
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- ½ tsp fresh thyme
- ¼ tsp pepper
- ¼ tsp paprika
- 1 tbsp parsley
- 2 tbsp cream
- Salt to taste
Wash the bugs and cut length ways. Heat the oil in a frypan. Add the garlic and the bugs, and cook over a high heat until the bugs start to turn red. Add the spring onion and celery. Flame with the brandy.
When the flame dies down, pour in the wine and add the tomato paste, thyme, pepper, paprika, parsley, cream and salt. Cover and cook over a low heat for three minutes. Serve.