Avoid the bad clam
I am a magnet for bad seafood. At a restaurant table of six, everyone gets a delicious portion of crab cakes, broiled scrod or lazy man’s lobster. Except me. If there’s one malodorous, borderline piece of fish, one rotting lobster tail or just a single rancid clam in the kitchen, it magically finds its way to my plate. So, out of necessity, I have become something of an expert in the choosing, purchase and preparation of fish. If you’d ever been on the business end of a bad mussel, you would be too.
I’ll spare you the usual foray into my sordid past and get right to business.
Use your eyes, and by this I mean look for expiration dates on packaged products. I’ve never been very good at judging fish by sight, and in fact, have made some rather monumental mistakes when relying on looks. And here I’m talking about many things, but mostly fish. Anyways, that’s really neither here nor there. If you must buy prepackaged fish, just rummage around until you find the freshest one.
My personal failings notwithstanding, do try and evaluate by sight. Though I would never buy a whole fish – way too much work to prepare and eat, huge bone consumption risk, and I can’t have heads lying around – if you must, look for bright clear eyes, shiny scales and bright red gills (yet another reason to avoid whole fish – gills, eww). Fillets and steaks should be firm and totally without milk colored liquid (rot, rot, rot!). Clear liquid is OK. If the fillet has skin, take a look at it to be sure it’s shiny and metallic looking, as with a whole fish.
Go ahead, give it a squeeze. If you press the flesh with your finger it should spring back up promptly, like a good pillow top mattress. If it doesn’t (think of the ruts in a well worn Tempur-Pedic), don’t even consider it. This can work for prepackaged fish, if you must go that route.
Buying seafood is done with the nose first, the pocketbook second. Fresh seafood should smell at most like the sea, or at best like nothing at all. If it smells fishy it is, at the very least, flirting with spoilage. If it smells like ammonia, it has crossed the line and is in the process of setting up a date for you and Mr. Toilet Bowl – absolutely no good at all. Simple enough. But how, in today’s world of stay-fresh packaging and tetchy fish mongers do I manage this, you ask. I have developed a couple of tricks.
- In a grocery store, or whenever buying something sealed, just go ahead and buy it if it looks good. But as soon as the transaction is complete and before you leave the premises, open the container and have a sniff. Yup, right at the scene. If you’re buying something that’s already cooked, like crabmeat or lobster salad, you can affect being unable to wait for a taste and take a nibble. Whatever your strategy, you’ll know if the product is no good and can return it on the spot. As an added bonus, you are now empowered to sniff the replacement before accepting it. Perfect.
- At the fish market, just ask to sniff. If you feel the need to apologize, get over it or just tell them you got a bad clam/crab cake/scallop last week and never want to go there again, thank you very much. They may not like it, but tough shit. It’s your money. Sniff away.
Certain types of seafood require special handling and attention.
I have had lobster in many settings, from some of Manhattan’s “finest” restaurants to the lobster shack across the road from the trailer park in Corea, and I can say with total certainty that you should not even bother with lobster on the East Coast (and I assume this holds true for other locales) unless you can see the water it came from. Simple enough. There seems to be something about life on the inside (more than a day or two) that ruins the meat. Maybe it’s the fear of dropping the soap, or the enforced proximity to one’s own kind. Imagine being incarcerated in a tank with all your relatives and neighbors plus a bunch of people you don’t know, but being unable to take a swing or hurl an epithet. It could just be the boredom that comes from not having to scavenge a meal or chase and eat your young. Who can really say? But whatever the reason, I can say that I have never, EVER had a decent lobster anywhere but on the water.
And by the way, people, when you vacation in New England and go to the lobster pound (either to buy your bugs or eat them there), don’t ask for the biggest one they’ve got. The shell is too hard to break, the meat is tough and it makes you look like
a loser an amateur. Lobster cognoscenti know that the best meat comes from smaller soft-shell lobsters, which by the way, are far cheaper. If there are no “shedders” available, just get a couple of smaller hard shells. Or chuck the whole process and order a lobster roll. You can thank me later.
Scallops are very delicate. The best ones arrive at the restaurant or market alive (still attached to the shells they move), as they spoil very quickly. Here’s what you need to know about buying them: Scallops should be “dry,” meaning they should not have been packed in preservatives or solutions designed to plump them up, and thus increase the price. If you press one and it produces a milky liquid, this is a dead giveaway that it has been processed and/or is on the verge of spoiling. Pass it by.
Size matters: Those little tiny “bay scallops” are almost always wet and nasty. I suppose you could use them for chowder, but I never even given them a look. Yuck. A proper sea scallop should be about the size of a silver dollar.
Regarding freshness, see my comments above re lobster. And don’t even try to pick crabs. I don’t know what those folks on the Chesapeake are smoking, but the pain and suffering you have to endure to extract about a tablespoon of meat from a crab that’s been boiled in bay seasoning (which adds no flavor whatsoever and makes the thousands of little cuts from the crab shells sting) is not remotely worth the time or the buzz kill. And besides, picking a crab is like performing an alien autopsy. Utterly horrifying. My verdict: there is not enough beer in the world to make it worth the effort. Order the crab cake and enjoy your life.
Clams and mussels must be alive when they hit the pot and are usually closed or only slightly open when harvested. Both pop open when cooked. Look out for broken shells or wide open shells and discard any before you cook them. Also watch out for extremely light (empty) or heavy shells (probably filled with mud). If a mussel is alive it will close tightly if you tap the shell. For clams, just touch the neck (if you can stand it. I cannot.). That’s the part that sticks out of the shell. If it recoils, it’s alive.
And never pry open a closed shell once the clam or mussel has been fully cooked! If it stays closed, it’s bad. If you opt to eat them raw, you’re on your own. And remember, when in doubt, throw it out. Lest you throw it up.