Oysters, were an everyday food until the early 20th century, widely enjoyed by people in all walks of society until supply problems and growing pollution saw them fall rapidly out of favour. Today though, a huge variety of great quality shellfish are readily available, be it delicious crustacea such as crab, lobster and langoustine; bivalves such as mussels, oysters and scallops; or gastropods (members of the snail family, with one shell) such as whelks. Whether farmed or harvested from the wild, shellfish are a worthy addition to any menu and almost universally popular with diners. Let’s take a look at a few of the more commonly available species.
You can’t beat the wow factor when serving a whole cooked lobster to the table.
There are several species – native lobsters from the UK (Homarus gammarus) are often considered the best, but are usually all sold locally where they are landed, or exported. North American lobsters (Homarus americanus) are caught off the east coast of Canada and down as far as the Maine coastline, providing a readily available year-round alternative. There is much debate as to the most humane method of cooking live lobsters. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) recommends that they be first placed in the freezer for two hours, rendering the lobster unconscious. Then before boiling, drive a sharp pointed knife through the cross found on the head, and death is instantaneous. This method both prevents suffering and means the meat stays tender. The lobster should then be plunged into heavily salted (40g per litre) boiling water and simmered for 15 minutes per 500g live weight, adding 2 minutes per additional 100g. Alternatively the lobster can be halved and grilled, or remove the claws and body meat and steam or stir-fry.
Also known as Dublin Bay prawns, Nephrops and Norwegian lobster, langoustine (Nephrops norvegicus) look like large prawns but are actually part of the lobster family and can grow up to 250g in weight. Whilst traditionally the tails have been used to make breaded scampi, there are more delicious uses for this superb species. They are fantastic roasted in the oven and served whole with lemon and mayonnaise or split in half, coated in butter and herbs and grilled. The tail meat has a sweet taste and a prawn-like texture.
The brown edible crab (Cancer pagurus) is native to the UK. Cock crabs (males) contain more white meat than the female hens, and are generally preferred by chefs. Cocks can be identified by their larger claws, and with a narrower and more pointed tail flap. They range in size from 1–2kg, with a meat yield of around 35%, and more white meat than brown. Other crab species which you may be able to find for sale/supply include: Alaskan king crab, spider crab, velvet crab and snow crab. Also sometimes available is the imported blue swimming crab. Before cooking live crabs, the RSPCA recommend you first place them in a freezer for two hours, which renders them unconscious. Prior to cooking, insert a pointed rod (such as a kebab skewer) just above the mouth and push to the back of the shell. You can then plunge them into heavily salted (40g per litre) boiling water and simmer for 15 minutes for 500g, adding 2 minutes per additional 100g, then remove and allow to cool. Alternatively the claws and body meat can be removed and steamed or stir-fried.
The UK’s native mussel (Mytilus edulis) is widely cultivated on ropes suspended in the water that don’t touch the seabed, ensuring they don’t pick up grit and barnacles. Their bluish-black shells are thinner than wild mussels and the meat content higher since these mussels are not exposed at low tides and so can feed constantly. The myth about only eating mussels ‘when there is an ‘R’ in the month’ is incorrect – although mussels spawn in spring and are not at their best at this time since the meat content is lower, there is no risk to eating mussels at this time. Rope grown mussels are available year round although not at their best in the summer months. Dredged mussels can be much cheaper to buy, but need more cleaning to remove the sand and grit that often comes with them. Dredging is carried out from August through to May. Mussels are a great value shellfish that make a fine starter, lunch or main course. To serve, ensure they are clean and free of barnacles; remove any ‘beard’'(also known as the ‘byssus thread’– this is how the mussel was attached to the rope or rock it grew upon) and simply steam in the serving sauce or over a bed of seaweed. Discard any mussels which do not open. Classic recipes such as moules marinières and moules Provençale are rightly popular, and paella wouldn’t be the same without them! Frozen mussels are of good quality and include the New Zealand greenlip mussels (Perna canaliculus) which possesses a sweeter taste and is a little more chewy. Greenlip mussels are usually much bigger than UK native mussels making them great for topping with other ingredients and grilling.
These attractive fan-shaped shells contain a firm, translucent, off-white meat wrapped with a bright orange roe or coral which is also edible but with a different taste and texture. When preparing from the shell, the membrane, grey-brown frill and black thread of intestine are all discarded. King scallops (Pecten maximus) are generally around 15cm in diameter, with two joined shells (one rounded, one flat) – there will be 18–35 pieces of scallop meat per kg. The smaller Queen scallops (Aequipecten opercularis) have shells approximately 7cm wide (both joined shells are rounded) with approximately 20–40 pieces of meat per kg. Both species are available either in the shell or as shelled meat – with or without the roe. While many scallops are caught using dredging methods, there is also a strong UK market for premium quality diver-caught scallops. A superb starter in or out of the shell, scallop meat has a sweet, delicate flavour and requires minimal cooking – the simpler the better; steamed, pan-fried or grilled.
There are three main oyster varieties available in the UK: native, Pacific (or rock) oysters and Portuguese oysters (Crassostrea angulate). The native oyster (Ostrea edulis) is available from September to April and considered the best, but takes twice as long to grow as other varieties and is usually more expensive to buy. Faster growing Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas) are available year round. All oysters should feel heavy for their size and be kept with the round ‘cupped’ part of the shell facing downwards to retain moisture. Despite their modern image as a luxury food, oysters used to be a cheap ‘working class’ dish, traditionally used in British beef
and oyster pie. Now commonly served raw with lemon and pepper, though stronger salsa type toppings are also used. Oysters can also be steamed open like mussels, topped then grilled or baked, or the meat can be removed, coated in tempura batter and deep-fried.
There are a number of varieties of clam available in the UK; all are round and stone-like except the razor clam (Ensis arcuatus), so called because it resembles a cutthroat razor in shape. Amande (dog cockles), venus and razor clams are the most common varieties, although palourdes clams (pronounced ‘pal-ourd’ and also known as Manila clams) are often considered the finest clams and command a much higher price. Once washed and scrubbed, clams are used in classic dishes such as Linguine alle Vongole and New England Clam Chowder. Clams can also be served raw like oysters.
And why not try these tasty recipes on your menu
The cider could be replaced with apple juice. Make sure you serve with plenty of bread to soak up all those delicious juices.
Preparation Time: 5 minutes
Cooking Time: 10 minutes
2kg fresh mussels, washed, de-bearded and scrubbed
150ml dry cider
3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
4 thyme sprigs
200ml crème fraîche
Freshly ground black pepper
bread, to serve
- Place the mussels in a large pan, cover and steam for 5-7 minutes, shaking or stirring after a few minutes. When all the mussels have opened (discard any that remain closed), strain, reserving the liquor. Return the mussels to their pan and set aside, covering with a lid to keep them warm.
- Place the cider, shallots and thyme in a small pan and boil to reduce the by half.
- Pour the mussel liquor into the pan. Simmer the cider sauce vigorously for a few minutes until reduced by a third, then stir in the crème fraîche and return to a simmer. Pour over the mussels and serve in warmed shallow bowls with lots of bread.
Crab And Noodle Salad With Black Sesame Seed Dressing
Preparation Time: 5 minutes
Cooking Time: 5 minutes
½ x 250g pack thin rice noodles
200g white and brown crabmeat
20g pack coriander, finely chopped
½ x 20g pack mint, finely chopped
For the dressing:
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp black sesame seeds
1 tsp sesame seeds
1 tsp clear honey
1 garlic clove
- Place the noodles in a bowl, cover with boiling water and set aside for 4 – 5 minutes. Rinse with cold water and drain thoroughly, then return to the bowl.
- Add the fresh white crab meat to the bowl, together with the coriander, mint, leaves and the juice of ½ lemon.
- Toss all the dressing ingredients together and pour over the salad. Toss gently and serve with extra lemon wedges to squeeze over.
For more information about seafood visit the Seafish website