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The Scoop on Shellfish

For the last decade, consumption of all kinds of fish and seafood has been on the rise, due mostly to the fact that the general public now recognizes the advantages of including these items in their diet. And while many types of fish were once considered out of the ordinary, Americans have found that the seafood once only enjoyed at “fancy” restaurants is now appearing in their local grocery store or fish market.

Shellfish are no exception. Most cooks once thought that shellfish – with the exception, perhaps, of shrimp – were best left for restaurant dining. However, these days, more and more home chefs have begun to recognize the ease in which they can purchase and prepare all kinds of shellfish and these delights from the sea are becoming more commonly found on tables all over America.

A Shellfish Primer

Though there are many different varieties of shellfish at your marketplace, those varieties are actually subcategories of the two main varieties of shellfish: mollusks and crustaceans.

o Mollusks – Scientifically speaking, a mollusk is an invertebrate. Their bodies are soft and covered by a hard shell. They are divided into three categories: univalves (conch, abalone), bivalves (muscles, clams, oysters), and cephalopods (octopus, squid). You’ll find items from all three groups on restaurant menus though some tend to be more regional than others.
o Crustaceans – These creatures have long bodies with hard, jointed external shells. They don’t keep the same shell throughout their lifetime but, rather, their shell is discarded every so often as the animal grows. Common forms of crustaceans are among the most widely-eaten shellfish in the world and include shrimp, crab, and lobster.

Buying Shellfish

For novice shellfish cooks, it’s often hard to tell just what to buy and what represents a fish that will taste good when cooked and served.

Shellfish such as lobster, crab, oysters, clams, and mussels are sold when they are still alive. To find the freshest, you’ll want to look for the lively ones. Of course, this is a bit easier with lobster and crab than with tiny mussels, oysters, or clams. Crab and lobsters should be swimming energetically in the tank and not lurking in the corner. Their claws should be moving and lobsters should curl their tails when picked up. Don’t purchase a sluggish crab or lobster.

Mussels, oysters, and hard-shell clams should be in tightly closed shells. If the shells aren’t closed, tap on them. If they don’t snap shut, the mollusks are dead and should not be eaten. Soft-shell clams can’t close their shells all the way so you can’t perform the tap test. Instead, touch the neck of each clam (which is sticking out from the shell). If it reacts, the clam is fresh.

Scallops, on the other hand, are usually sold after they are shucked. They should appear off-white to light pink in color. Fresh squid should also be off-white and will most likely have some pink patches.

Shrimp can be purchased raw or cooked. What you choose may depend on how you plan to use them. Generally, you’ll have two choices: fresh or frozen. Fresh shrimp should be firm to the touch, not wimpy.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the freshness of the shellfish. If the person behind the counter can’t answer your questions, move on and buy your shellfish elsewhere. If you plan to be a consistent purchaser of shellfish, make an attempt to form a good relationship with your local fishmonger and he’ll be sure to keep you informed as to the best available.

Storing Shellfish

If you’re planning to freeze the shellfish you’ve purchased, do so immediately. Simply place them in the freezer in the bags/wrapping in which you purchased them. They should keep for 3 or 4 months, but will begin to lose some flavor as time goes on.

Any fresh shellfish that’s not going into the freezer should be consumed within 24 hours of purchase. However, the old adage “the sooner, the better” applies here. Keep fresh shellfish in a moist environment of about 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Live shellfish can be placed in a shallow container and covered with a damp towel. Do not put a lid on the container or the animal will suffocate and die.