The World of Shellfish

Clam chowder, jambalaya and shrimp cocktail are just a few of the delicious dishes that feature shellfish.

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From scallops to crawfish, shrimp to oysters, the world of shellfish is a vast one and there is no end of delicious recipes that include it. Let’s take a ‘deep dive’ into this species.  

OVERVIEW

Shellfish live in water and have a shell-like exterior. They can be divided into two categories: crustaceans and mollusks. Crustaceans include shrimp, crab and lobster, while scallops, oysters, and mussels are examples of mollusks. These sea creatures are high-quality protein sources and generally nutritious. While shellfish doesn’t have the omega-3’s that a fish like salmon does, it tends to be low in fat and contain hard-to-get micronutrients like selenium, which is a mineral important for cognitive and immune function. 

CUISINE

In Japanese cuisine, shellfish and their roe are featured in a variety of dishes, including sushi. In the United States, lobster, clams and crab are very popular and, in the Cajun kitchens of Louisiana, shrimp and crawfish are found in traditional recipes like jambalaya and various creole stews. 

In Spain, you’ll find all types of shellfish in paella, one of the best-known dishes in Spanish cuisine. In France, a variety of cooked shellfish is served on a platter, usually over crushed ice, in a dish called fruits de mer (fruits of the sea). As for Turkey, you’ll find fried mussels on a stick are a popular street food there. 

Crustaceans include shrimp, crab and lobster, while scallops, oysters, and mussels are examples of mollusks.

MUSSELS

Mussels are mollusks that can be found worldwide but are more plentiful in colder seas. There are freshwater and marine mussels but freshwater ones are generally considered unpalatable for human consumption. Mussels are sedentary and attach themselves to stones or shells with their ‘beards’, strong threads made up of protein that keep the mussels in place so that the sea currents don’t carry them. These can be challenging to remove when preparing them for cooking. 

Mussels have been used as a food source for over 20,000 years. They can be smoked, boiled, steamed, roasted, or fried and are prepared differently throughout the world. In Belgium and France, they are eaten with french fries in a popular dish known as “moules-frites,” but, in many parts of the world, they are steamed with either cream or white wine and herbs. 

As with all shellfish, mussels must be checked to ensure they are still alive just before they are cooked. A good indicator is that their shells are tightly closed or that they shut immediately when disturbed. Open mussels or ones with multiple cracks should be discarded, as they are most likely dead or have been poorly handled.

Mussels have been used as a food source for over 20,000 years.

LOBSTER

Lobsters are considered a crustacean, just like shrimp and crayfish. They are caught in an underwater trap called a “lobster pot” and can be green, yellow and even bright blue, only turning red once they are cooked. 

Besides American lobsters, found in the Atlantic Ocean, people also enjoy European lobsters, and spiny Caribbean lobsters that are mainly sold for their tails, since they have no claws. Lobster can be prepared in many different ways. Steamed, boiled, broiled and baked. Grilled lobster tails are generally considered a delicacy. Also considered a delicacy by many is the tomalley (the part that turns green when cooked), which is part of the lobster’s digestive tract. If you’re partial to lobster tail meat, you'll want to buy a female lobster, which is known for having larger tails than the male. If you’re partial to claw meat, find yourself a male lobster which is known for its large claws. Don’t forget about the meat in lobster legs. It may take a little work (bite down hard and suck it out) but it’s very tasty. 

Popular lobster recipes include Lobster Thermidor, bisque and lobster rolls. Lobster meat is a great source of protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Slathered in butter, it can be a fattening food but, eaten plain, lobster is considerably low in calories. Lobster isn’t exactly the cleanest food to eat. It may take a few attempts at eating a shelled lobster until you can accomplish it with finesse and less napkins, but you’ll get there! 

Popular lobster recipes include Lobster Thermidor, bisque and lobster rolls. Lobster meat is a great source of protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Slathered in butter, it can be a fattening food but, eaten plain, lobster is considerably low in calories. Lobster isn’t exactly the cleanest food to eat. It may take a few attempts at eating a shelled lobster until you can accomplish it with finesse and less napkins, but you’ll get there! 

In France, a variety of cooked shellfish is served on a platter, usually over crushed ice, in a dish called fruits de mer (fruits of the sea).

SHRIMP

Shrimps are sold in many forms, which include, cooked or raw, unpeeled and peeled (shell removed), tailless, head on or off, and vein intact or removed. To further complicate things, there’s the term ‘prawn’ which is often used interchangeably with shrimp, but can refer to larger varieties of shrimp and is used more commonly outside of North America.

Typically, uncooked, frozen, head-off shrimp are recommended for most preparations. That is unless you live somewhere that you have access to live shrimp from the ocean. The reason that frozen shrimp are usually the best option is because most shrimp that you find sold in grocery stores were frozen at sea and thawed, so there’s no saying how long they have been defrosted for. As for the heads, they contain a bitter, pungent juice which can be quite polarizing. That said, head-on shrimp are wonderful for stocks and sauces, since they will impart lots of flavor! 

Shrimp are popular for a reason. They pair with a lot of different flavors and they can be prepared in many different ways. Methods include grilling, broiling, frying, and steaming, any of which you can do with the shell on or off. Unfortunately, shrimp are often overcooked and, as such, can get a bad reputation. Remember that shrimp cook extremely fast, often under one minute! For this reason, it is best to add them at the very end of whatever dish it is that you are preparing – you’ll know they’re cooked when they change from translucent to opaque pink in color. Oh, and don’t forget to keep the shells after you discard them as they can be used to make soup stock. Just freeze them in a zip-top bag until you're ready to use them. You’ll thank yourself later!