Tastings How fresh is that shellfish

Regulations in the U.S. require that the processor tags all live shellfish that is for sale in retail markets. When they arrive, the fish market clerk takes the tag off, and files it for 90 days in case of illness from the shellfish. These tags indicate where and when they harvested them. Don't be timid to ask the clerk to see these tags when you buy shellfish, if you doubt their freshness.

Octopus is a delicacy in high regard in the Orient. It is less highly regarded in North America, probably for the same reason eels and snakes aren't often on menus here. None of them look very pretty when alive. (Neither do pigs, you could argue.) Octopus has a delicate, firm, sweet white meat so high in quality that the Japanese even use it in sushi.

Octopus is particularly vulnerable to dry heat, which turns it into something resembling a piece of bread dough you have forgotten on the counter for a day. It does better when simmered for longer periods of time in stew-like preparations. In quick-cooking methods it is best if you tenderize the meat before cooking, especially if it came from a large (over 2^ pounds or 1140 g), older animal. You can buy octopus in cans, too, but don't bother sampling it. The flavor is very poor compared to the real thing.

Eighty percent of the original dressed weight of octopus is edible meat. You'll find it in the market dressed, cleaned, eyes and other inedible parts removed, and each weighing about 3 or 4 pounds (1360 to 1820 g). The amount to buy is 4 to 5 ounces (110 to 140 g) of meat per person.

Oysters are not for everyone, but the minority who likes them is unconditionally passionate about them. Other folks consume oysters in large quantities simply because of their reputation as an aphrodisiac. All this aside, oysters are a real delicacy, particularly when the host or hostess serves them au naturel, or raw. Since uncooked meat of any kind has little or no flavor, traditional condiments and sauces usually accompany raw oysters, in which the texture and mouthfeel give the eating pleasure more than the flavor.

Oysters change flavor drastically during spawning season. They accumulate glycogen, a starch which turns the meat milky and the taste starchy and bland. Their meat also contains a higher amount of fat during spawning season. The old wives' tale about eating them only in months with an "r" in their names works because those r-less months correspond with the spawning season. If the weather is cooler than normal, though, oysters retain their spawn and the flavor continues bland. It pays to look at both the calendar and the weather pattern before choosing an oyster recipe for the next dinner party.

You can buy oysters fresh in the shell, freshly shucked, or individually quick frozen. If you buy them shucked, make sure the liquid in the package or container is clear—this indicates freshness. You buy oysters in the shell by size—small, medium and large. Very small and extra large sizes are also available, but these are mostly sold to restaurants.

Of the six commercial species, three are common at retail or in restaurants. The highest quality Olympia oysters, from the Northwest, are larger and not quite as flavorful as Pacific (or Japanese) oysters, and finally the Eastern oysters, which you find most readily. Serve oysters cold (raw or cooked) on the half shell on crushed ice with lemon or dipping sauce in a small bowl on the side. If you are serving them hot, display them on a bed of hot coarse salt (the salt keeps the tiny creatures hot).

Edible yields vary a great deal, depending on the size and thickness of the shells and the size of the oysters. It is anywhere from a mere 5 percent for thick-shelled, small oysters to about 15 percent. If you buy oysters in the shell by the number, count on 6 to 9 per serving or if you buy them shucked, 4 to 5 ounces (110 to 140 g) by weight or 6 to 8 ounces (180 to 240 ml) by liquid volume.

Scallops have firm, ivory-colored meat that can be divine if not overcooked. The flavor is sweet, nutty and delicate. They are readily available in seafood markets, but they must be absolutely fresh to be good. Everything between the two shells is edible, although in North America people opt for the single large adductor muscle only. Unlike clam shells, the two halves of a scallop shell don't completely close. They dehydrate quickly after harvesting and die if the fishermen don't keep them in optimum environment. Because they are so perishable, processors often clean scallops on board the fishing vessel and keep them on ice. They are not as easily available for harvesting as shrimp. The fishermen must catch enough to make it worthwhile to bring them into port, so those unfortunate ones they caught early may be shivering quite a while on ice before they haul the last ones in.

Storing scallops in fresh water improves the all-important appearance for marketability. Unfortunately for the consumer, this also increases weight and dilutes flavor.

Individually quick-frozen scallops retain their freshness, flavor and moisture well, and you often get a better buy and quality than fresh ones when you cannot validate just how fresh is fresh. Distributors usually soak scallops destined to sell as fresh in a chemical (sodium tripolyphosphate) to retain moisture and improve appearance. They may look great but be wary—the chemical alters the flavor and you might think of wandering over to the frozen counter instead.

Stores commonly sell two major species of scallops, the small and more delicately flavored bay scallops and the larger, more abundant and nearly as good sea scallops, which are much cheaper. Tiny calico scallops from Florida are very uncommon. They resemble bay scallops but supposedly don't have as good a flavor.

The scallops at the market are pure meat, you only lose the liquid it releases on cooking. Count on 4 to 5 ounces (110 to 140 g) per person.

Shrimp is without doubt our most popular shellfish and among the most popular of all seafood. With its firm meat (when not overcooked) and delicate, distinctive but not overpowering flavor, even diners who never choose seafood from a menu may order shrimp (provided there's some juicy red meat on the plate next to the shrimp). A dozen different species of commercially important shrimp grow in various parts of the world. With modern air transportation, we have access to all of them. Flavor has nothing to do with size, but restaurants prefer the large shrimp, because they are easier and faster to shell and look very showy on the plate. Diners are also willing to pay extra for colossal and jumbo sizes.

Sizes vary tremendously. Really tiny shrimp weigh less than one-tenth of an ounce (3 g) each (the weight of a clove of garlic), while the giant species weigh in at about half a pound (225 g), too much for one serving.

A significant amount of imported shrimp is now coming from Asian shrimp farms, where they harvest and immediately flash freeze them, then ship by air all over the world. Shrimp are so perishable that they must freeze them immediately after they leave the water. If the shrimp you brought home from the store turns out not very good, blame it on the handling somewhere between the water and your plate. (Or blame the cook.) It is the underpaid retail store worker that knows the least about handling and storing to preserve flavor. Your best bet is to buy shrimp frozen, if you can find it packaged in the right quantity, and defrost it yourself. (See suggestions on storing later in this chapter.) Retailers generally buy shrimp in four-pound boxes, that are only occasionally displayed, but you can request a full frozen box. Asian markets always have them in the freezer case. The fresh-looking shrimp on display at the fish counter are not fresh—the clerk defrosted them just a few hours before you arrived. Usually the only way you can buy fresh, never-frozen shrimp is from fishing boats just pulling in.

Don't ever buy pre-cooked shrimp. Cooking shrimp is almost as easy as cooking potatoes, and you can do a far better job than the supermarket's underpaid cook in the back.

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