Oysters, Clams, Scallops, Cockles & Mussels (alive, alive, oh!)

There are two generally defined types of shellfish: mollusks and crustaceans. Mollusks include oysters, mussels, clams, scallops, and cockles among others; and the more commonly known and eaten crustaceans are crab, lobster, crawfish and shrimp. Here’s a guide to the more recognizable types of mollusks including all you need to know about what makes them tick, if they’re good for your ticker, and how to purchase and prepare at home—for more on crustaceans, check out the guide to crustaceans.

drawing_musselsMUSSELS are, unquestionably, one of my favorite things to eat, but it’s only been fairly recently that I’ve started cooking them at home. I used to be timid, but now I know they’re beyond easy to cook. Best steamed or boiled, they take less than 10 minutes and are easily tossed into a large pot full of herbs, garlic and a rich tomato-based sauce or broth. When buying from the grocery, make sure they were stored on ice and only buy ones with tightly closed shells. A good fishmonger will sort them for you. Before cooking, be sure to lightly scrub the shell before immersing them into your final dish. Mussels are farmed, and harvested wild, on the upper portion of the East Coast up into Canada as well as the West Coast but the large majority, like many shellfish, come from New England. Nutritionally speaking, mussels have a tad bit more fat than other shellfish, but it’s still slight and the amount of protein far outweighs the fat content, literally. Here’s a great recipe for mussels.

drawing_oysterOYSTERS might be touted as an aphrodisiac—which is all fine and great—but they should be hailed for their high levels of minerals, vitamins and protein too. The typical oyster has about 2 calories and both wild-harvested and farmed get a thumbs up, so you can eat to your heart, and body’s content. My personal favorite are Blue Points from the Eastern U.S.

5 Fun Facts About Oysters

    1. Only eat oysters during months with the letter “R.” When water is warm—i.e. the summer months—there is a higher prevalence of the marine bacteria known as Vibrio vulnificus… but, MOST* people aren’t susceptible to infection from the bacteria and are free to enjoy the little mollusks 356 days a year.
    2. There are boy mollusks and girl mollusk. True, but both male and female oysters have gonads which produce both eggs and sperm—which means they are hermaphrodites and can change gender if they want to. Easy Peasy.
    3. It’s ALIVE. Or is it? If you’ve enjoyed the delicacy on the half shell, then yes, chances are the little creatures are still alive. But that’s OK. It means they’re fresh … and no one wants to eat an oyster that’s been “living” in a fridge for weeks on end.
    4. Oysters have gills. Oysters are like fish in that they take oxygen from water as it passes through their gills, and discard the carbon dioxide. And, believe it or not, the little guys (and gals) also have hearts, kidneys, stomachs and intestines. Who knew!
    5. Oysters are an aphrodisiac. Well, the famed 18th-century lover Casanova ate 50 oysters for breakfast every morning. Seemed to work for him, but the official verdict is still out.

drawing_clamCLAMS are versatile. Most everyone’s had New England clam chowder—that’s the thick, creamy white version; the red, tomato-broth based version is known as Manhattan clam chowder—but clams can be used so many ways other than in a chowder recipe. They’re great mixed in with pasta, served on the half shell alongside other shellfish, and they’re delicious grilled in-shell. Steam clams the same way you would mussels, or, grill them (see below)—and with more than 20 grams of protein per 3-ounce serving, you can eat to your hearts content. Note, if you can’t find them fresh, look for packages of frozen clams; they work perfectly! The quahog, razor, little neck and Pacific-caught geoduck are the most common varieties and both wild-caught and farmed are good options.

How to Grill Clams: Place clams directly on grill or in a large grilling basket. Close the lid and cook for about 7 minutes. Melt 1 stick of butter and stir in some fresh herbs; I use parsley and chives. Add about a tablespoon of lemon juice, salt and pepper. Remove clams and place in a shallow serving dish (discard ones that don’t open). Pour melted butter concoction over them, serve with crusty French bread and lemon wedges.

drawing_scallopSCALLOPS are not all created equal. Of course not many things are, but when it comes to scallops, it’s the size that makes all the difference in the world (or in the sea). There are two main types of scallops: sea and bay. Sea scallops, which are caught in the sea, duh, can be nearly three times the size of bay scallops. Bay scallops are caught in—yes, you guessed it—bays and harbors and have, according to most connoisseurs, a sweeter flavor. Both varieties are low in fat and high in protein but they do contain more cholesterol than most seafood so eat cautiously if you’re watching your levels. Wild-harvested scallops and farm-raised are OK to eat so long as they don’t come from Peru. When purchasing in the store, look for U8 or U10—whcih means you’ll get around 8, or 10, per pound respectively. Read more about scallops.

Here in the U.S., what we consider a scallop is actually only one part of the mollusk—the adductor muscle. In other parts of the world, when you order a scallop it often has the roe attached—the orangish reddish part seen here. In the U.S., most scallops are shucked at sea with the roe and other portions discarded.

drawing_cockleCOCKLES and mussels alive, alive oh. What? Am I the only one who knows the famed Irish song? Maybe so, but regardless, I’m sure you’ve at least heard of cockles. Although, most people I know don’t seem to know that cockles are indeed a real food, not just another name for clam or scallop. But while cockles are delicious and get a thumbs up on their sustainability rating, they’re next to impossible to find in the U.S. So if you get a chance to roam the same roads as the ill-fated Molly Malone, make sure you stop into a local fish shop and try a cockle, or two. Their tiny—think blackberry size—so you will want to order more than one … and if you do, let me know. Because believe it or not, this mermaid has yet to try one herself.

Coming up next week on the blog … Chefs against blue fin tuna, and why you need to join the cause, a delicious recipe for salmon chowder and more on grilling shellfish.

Want more from The Midwest Mermaid? Be sure to follow along here, and on Instagram for all the latest in seafood news and chews | @shaunanosler 

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DISCLAIMER: I’m a writer and an editor. And I try my best to make sure every post is articulate and free from errors. However, being that I edit my own work—and it’s next to impossible to properly edit your own work—I admit, occasionally there may be an error or two I miss. But doing so doesn’t make me an idiot so don’t be mean. Just smile, pat yourself on the back for finding an error and be glad you’re not the only one who makes mistakes sometimes … yes, even mermaids slip up every now and then. xoxox