The first time I made mussels, I thought I was the most amazing chef in the world. It was in college, and a friend taught me how to steam them with white wine, shallots and a little heavy cream. Before that, shellfish had not really been a part of my life, not because of any dietary restrictions, but because shellfish were weird. I imagine the first person to eat an oyster did so on a drunken dare, bashing open what was obviously a rock and then shouting, "Hey, there's meat in this rock!" Actually, the first person to eat an oyster probably saw gulls doing it first, but still, shellfish, whether they’re crabs or clams, can be complicated. They have hard casings that need to be coaxed open or just broken, and if you let them spoil (which they seem ready to do at any moment) it'll probably be the worst night you've ever had.
However, according to Tim Richardson, Executive Chef at Hank’s Seafood Restaurant in Charleston, SC, there's nothing to fear. "Cooking shellfish at home can seem daunting to the novice but can be pretty simple and delicious," he said over email. As with most things though, you have to know how to look for quality in your product. What that looks like varies depending on what you're getting. For bivalves (clams, mussels, oysters), you want to make sure the shell is closed, because this means they're still alive. If you find an open mussel, you can check by tapping the hinge on a table — it will close up if it's still alive. When buying oysters, "if you tap on the shell with a knife, there shouldn’t be a hollow sound," says Richardson, and all of them should smell fresh like the sea. That goes for shrimp as well, which should "not have any ammonia scent coming from them."
If you like oysters but don't feel like shucking a bunch of them for your dinner party, don't be afraid of those tubs of pre-shucked oysters — depending on what you’re doing with them. "We use the oysters in the tub in the restaurant for our fried offerings," says Richardson. "They're great for that application and cut down on prep time." They are often shucked within days of delivery and still good quality, just be sure to check the date to know you’re getting them fresh.
Frying oysters or shrimp is one easy way to cook shellfish at home, but steaming is even easier. As a simple recipe, Richardson suggests putting a dozen clams or mussels in a large sauté pan with 2 cups of dry white wine, some lemon juice, garlic, and herbs of your choice (he suggests basil, tarragon or thyme). "Cover and steam until they open up, remove shellfish and strain the cooking liquid, then add in a few tablespoons of butter to the liquid for a great sauce." This method works well for shrimp too, and if you get fresh shrimp, Richardson suggests saving the shells for a seafood stock. "You'll have a great base sauce for pastas and such."
Mussels, oysters and clams are all pretty easy to find, but once you're comfortable with those basics, don't be afraid to expand your repertoire. Seafood markets are full of bivalve mollusks like razor clams, scallops, whelks, periwinkles and cockles. You can experiment with them all, with the added bonus of getting to make a bunch of "cockle" jokes. Just don’t blame me when your friends groan over that one.