Don’t Clam Up On Me!

During my heady chef days in Sydney I strived to specialize in two categories: seafood, and in particular shellfish, and game, fresh game. This post is about what I love to cook best: the fruits of the sea (what I miss the most here in Eire is a great seafood platter, the way it is served in most brasseries in France – see pic below)

Seafood is a low-fat source of top-quality protein, it provides essential nutrients and fatty acids (especially for developing bodies and brains) and makes a perfect lean meal whether grilled, baked or poached.

But before you buy any kind of seafood take a look here to see if it’s on the sustainable seafood guide.
Seafood is naturally rich in selenium, but it may also contain the environmental pollutant mercury, a dangerous toxin so I would check provenance (another reason to bookmark the sustainable link provided in the intro). Cholesterol in shellfish: while dietary cholesterol is present in shrimps, crabs and lobsters, as well as in squid and octopus, they contain very little saturated fat. Other shellfish such as cockles, mussels, oysters, scallops and clams are very low in cholesterol, roughly about half as much as chicken, and much less than red meats.

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I’ll start this post with recipes for cockles & clams. It can be argued that there is little difference between a cockle and a clam: a cockle is actually a soft-shelled clam, perfectly ribbed (it does resemble the human heart, hence “it warms the cockles of your heart” expression). Like clams, cockles can be eaten either raw or cooked and are available all year round. Cockle shells are often full of sand so they should be soaked in fresh water for 2 or 3 hours before eating. Another trick is to cover them with cold water and add half a glass of white wine vinegar. They should then be ready within the hour, after rinsing thoroughly of course.

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Cockle: any of approximately 250 species (family Cardiidae) of marine bivalves distributed worldwide. They range in diameter from about 0.5 in. (1 cm) to about 6 in. (15 cm). The two valves of the shell are equal in size and shape and range in colour from brown to red or yellow. Most species live just below the low-tide line, though some have been obtained from depths of more than 1,500 ft (500 m) or in the intertidal zone. Many species are marketed commercially for their meat.

The best way to eat cockles, IMHO, is to throw them into a cooking pot, add some very dry white wine (half a pint for every 2 pounds of cockles), 2 minced shallots, 2 tablespoons of finely chopped garlic & 2 of ginger, a handful of roughly chopped flat parsley, the juice of 2 limes and some crushed black pepper. Cover with lid, shake well and cook for 3 to 5 minutes over a hot flame or high heat, stir in a little cream if desired and serve with crusty bread. You can also add black mushrooms and/or leeks if it suited you.

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Another very interesting cockle dish is the way the Normands cook their chowder: they use speck (juniper-flavored ham) or pancetta and thicken it with potato slivers (and plenty of cream of course).

Normandy Chowder:

For 4 to 6 persons you will need 225g/8oz (shelled weight) cooked cockles (steamed would be quicker), 2 thick slices of speck or pancetta (or dry-cured bacon), 1 large onion, minced, 2 shallots, finely cut, 4 garlic cloves, finely minced, a handful of button mushrooms, sliced thinly, 4 medium potatoes (waxy), cooked, peeled and sliced thickly, salt & pepper to taste, a handful of flat parsley, a large knob of butter, 1 pint of fish stock or bouillon, half a pint of fresh cream, and some grated nutmeg added at the end.

In a heavy pan, fry the onion, the shallots, the mushrooms and speck/pancetta/bacon in butter until soft. Add the potato, garlic and liquids and bring to simmering point for about 15 minutes at a low heat. Add the cockles and heat through. Do not boil as this will toughen the cockles. Season to taste, add the parsley and top it up with grated nutmeg. This chowder is remarkably good cold as well and can be considered as a summer treat.

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If you have visited Italy chances are that you would have eaten their “Linguine alle Vongole”, a tasty pasta dish made with clams cooked with pancetta in a smooth tomato & garlic sauce. I’m not particularly fond of linguine which amounts to a flat spaghetti so I made up my own version adding some spices to it and replacing the linguine with home-made gnocchi. The result was spectacular, somewhat richer in texture and taste, so here it is:

Gnocchi alle Vongole:

for 4 to 6 persons you will need 2 pounds of fresh gnocchi (nowadays, you can buy ready-made gnocchi in most supermarkets and delicatessens, it usually comes into 1 pound packet or if you want to make your own check my diary on it), 1 pound of cherry tomatoes, 2 pounds of fresh clams, 1 leek, chopped up, 4 to 6 garlic cloves, finely minced, 4 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 pint of fish or shellfish stock, half a pint of dry white wine, 2 Serrano chilies, de-seeded and finely minced, half a pint of cream, a handful of flat parsley, chopped, salt & pepper to taste.

First soak the clams for a couple of hours, then rinse under cold water tap and set aside. Cook the gnocchi in boiling water to which 1 soupspoon of olive oil is added (stops them from sticking), drain and set aside. Cut the tomatoes in halves. In a skillet and over medium heat, add the remaining oil then the leek, the tomatoes and garlic and cook till slightly brown. Add the stock and the chilies, then the cream and slowly reduce until it becomes thickish (here’s a trick if it doesn’t thicken the way it should: mix a knob of butter with equal amount of flour – we call it beurre manié – and add to sauce bit by bit stirring at all times). Add the parsley then the clams and cook until they open, releasing their juices, then add the gnocchi carefully. Take off the heat and cover for a minute then serve.

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I’ve had the following dish in Thailand and it was a knock-out! Literally. There we were seated in a charming sea-side restaurant, eating gorgeous food. I had ordered a small bottle of their local whisky and drank it in a jiffy, thinking it was like lollipop water. Stupidly I ordered another and drank it as well. All was good till I got up, then proceeded to pass out and fell onto the graveled floor. I did remember the salad though, made it several times since and here it is:

Spicy Thai Clam Salad:

for 4 to 6 persons you will need the freshest clams you can get, allow at least 6 ounces of clam flesh per person which means you need to buy 3 to 4 pounds of clams, 1 bunch of baby spinach leaves, 2 ripe avocados, 2 ripe papayas, 1 large red onion, 4 to 6 green Thai chilies, 3 ounces of peanuts (forget about this if you’re allergic to nuts of course) and a small bunch of cilantro. For the dressing you will also need 4 soupspoons of Nam Plah (Thai fish sauce), 4 soupspoons of rice vinegar, 6 soupspoons of toasted sesame oil and a pinch of brown sugar.

Cook your clams and remove them from shells and let cool. Wash the spinach leaves and dry. Cut the avocados and the papaya into little chunks and spread the brown sugar on them. Roast the peanuts and crush them. Cut the red onion into thin strips. Mix all the above ingredients carefully. To make the sauce: in a bowl pour the vinegar, whisk the fish sauce in, then the sesame oil. Add the minced chillies and the cilantro and pour over the salad. Top it up with a sprinkle of the toasted peanuts. Serve with a couple of lime quarters, and forget about Thai whisky!

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And now we have some entertainment provided by our own Sinead O’Connor, doing a great rendition of Molly Malone’s Cockles & Mussels!

In Dublin’s fair city,
Where the girls are so pretty
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone
As she wheeled her wheel-barrow
Through streets broad and narrow
Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!
Alive, alive-O! alive, alive-O!
Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!
She was a fish-monger, but sure ’twas no wonder
For so were her father and mother before
And they each wheeled their barrow
Through streets broad and narrow
Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!
Alive, alive-O! alive, alive-O!
Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!

She died of a fever, and no one could save her
And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone
But her ghost wheels her barrow
Through streets broad and narrow
Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!
Alive, alive-O! alive, alive-O!
Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!

This is a good site that has a nutrition chart for most seafoods.

This entry was posted in Ecology, Environmental Issue, Food, Health, Recipes and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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