Superfood of the Sea
by April Thompson
The perfect food may not be underfoot, but rather, underwater. It’s delicious, fast-growing, nutritionally dense, sustainably produced, locally available from coast to coast and comes in nature’s own sturdy packaging.
“Shellfish is the most sustainable protein on the planet. There are no antibiotics, no pesticides, no fertilizer and no feed needed to raise shellfish,” says Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, which represents 1,500 shellfish farmers from Maine to Florida.
Shellfish is a nutritional powerhouse, providing proteins, essential amino acids, long-chain polyunsaturated fats, vitamins and carotenoids. The drastically shorter life cycle of shellfish compared to other farmed seafood also means shellfish producers can generate more food more quickly.
Shellfish also offer many ecological benefits; they filter the water, remove excess nutrients and create habitat for juvenile fish, Rheault says. A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, according to the Oyster Recovery Partnership, an organization that restores reefs in conjunction with a shell recycling network of restaurants and public drop sites across the mid-Atlantic region.
Ray Hilborn, a biologist and professor at the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, in Seattle, has compared the relative environmental costs of different food sources, including grains, poultry and imitation, plant-based meats. He has found that farmed shellfish, specifically mollusks like oysters, clams and mussels, provide the lowest impact protein of them all. “Shellfish has a very low carbon footprint and enormous yield per area,” he says. “Mussel farms, for example, are pretty much just ropes hung from rafts, with no changes to the ecosystem or loss of biodiversity, as compared to agriculture.”
“Shellfish has a very low carbon footprint and enormous yield per area.”
Bivalve shellfish like clams and oysters are mainly sourced from farms because wild stocks are largely depleted due to overharvesting, habitat loss and other contributing factors. “Somewhere around 90 percent of mussels and oysters on the market are farmed,” Rheault says. “If you see perfect-looking oysters at the raw bar, you know they are farmed. Out of the wild, they can look gnarly.”
Restorative aquaculture, which produces seafood using scientific principles that enhance coastal environments, may be one of the best opportunities to restore ecosystems while feeding the Earth’s growing population, according to a report from The Nature Conservancy. However, Hilborn points to “the impact of food, not just how it’s grown, but how it got to you.” Processed shellfish has a bigger carbon footprint, so it’s ecologically desirable to look for fresh, local options whenever possible.
Local production has a culinary benefit, too. “Every waterway has its own unique 'merroir’, or flavor, that comes from the local environment. The differing levels of salinity and minerality, among other things, can lead to a very different flavor,” adds Rheault. While there is only one dominant species of oyster on the East Coast, there are three varieties found on the West Coast and dozens more around the world, each with different flavor profiles, according to Rheault; oysters also have differing flavors throughout the year. “Fall oysters have a rich, full flavor; they can be skinny in the spring. I like them in winter best of all.”
Perry Raso, owner of the Matunuck Oyster Bar and Farm, in Wakefield, Rhode Island, and a leader in the growing shellfish farming industry, grew up digging littleneck clams as a youngster. He earned a graduate degree in aquaculture before launching and growing a multifaceted business, including a restaurant, a seven-acre oyster farm and an organic vegetable farm. He raises and sells more than 1 million mature oysters a year and also supplies 5 million seed oysters to other aqua farmers.
Voted one of the top 20 seafood restaurants in the country by Time Out, Matunuck Oyster Bar serves several shellfish delicacies, including a classic oyster stew made with rosemary broth, scallop ceviche, quinoa crab salad and oysters on the half shell with a cucumber passionfruit gazpacho. The menu also features “vegan scallops” made from seared king oyster mushrooms.
Rheault’s favorite way to eat an oyster, though, is simply with two drops of lime. “The lime knocks out your salt receptors and allows you to really taste the other flavors,” he says. “Grilling is another great way to introduce people to oysters. You don’t even need to shuck them; the grilling firms up the meat.”
Connect with Washington, D.C., freelance writer April Thompson at AprilWrites.com.
Vegan Shellfish Alternatives
Vegans or people with shellfish allergies can still enjoy the rich umami flavor of an oyster or clam with a little creativity. Here are a few suggested alternatives.
King oyster mushrooms: This mushroom is a misnomer perhaps, as its meaty stem, sliced in one-inch sections and sautéed or broiled, looks and tastes more like a scallop than an oyster. In general, mushrooms have a similar mouthfeel to shellfish: The chitin found in the shells of crustaceans are also a key compound in fungi. They can be added to many dishes as a satisfying substitute for seafood and other animal proteins. However, shellfish and mushroom allergies can overlap as a result of chitin sensitivities, so allergy sufferers should proceed with caution.
Seaweed: Kelp, dulse and other edible algae can also add a touch of that salty, sea-kissed flavor of shellfish, as well as important trace minerals and antioxidants, to dishes like chowders and stews without adding empty calories.
Heart of palm: The tender chewy texture of hearts of palm, flavored well, can serve as a surprising proxy for shellfish and seafood, particularly for rich dishes like fried calamari, lobster rolls or crab salad.
For those seeking a plant-based diet for ethical or other reasons, it’s worth noting that a subset of vegans believe that consuming oysters and mussels does not contradict their commitment to a compassionate diet, given that bivalves lack a central nervous system. This somewhat controversial offshoot of veganism even has its own name—ostroveganism, from the Latin word ostrea, meaning oyster.
Sustainable Seafood Recipes
This seafood soup, popularized by Italian immigrants in San Francisco, offers up an appealing assortment of fish and shellfish in a tomato-based broth.
yield: 4 to 6 servings
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 large onions, chopped fine
Salt and pepper
¼ cup water
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 bay leaves
1 tsp dried oregano
⅛ to ¼ tsp red pepper flakes
1, 28-oz can whole peeled
tomatoes, drained with juice
reserved, chopped coarse
1, 8-oz bottle clam juice
1½ lb skinless halibut fillet, ¾-to 1-inch-thick, cut into 6 pieces
1 lb littleneck clams, scrubbed
1¼ cups dry white wine
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 lb mussels, scrubbed and debearded
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
Extra-virgin olive oil
Any firm-fleshed, ¾-to 1-inch-thick whitefish (such as cod or sea bass) can be substituted for halibut. Discard clams or mussels with unpleasant odors, cracked shells, or shells that won’t close. If littlenecks are not available, substitute Manila or mahogany clams, or use 2 pounds of mussels. If using only mussels, cook them all at once with the butter and wine for 3 to 5 minutes. Serve with sourdough or rustic bread.
Heat vegetable oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onions, ½ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper; cook, stirring frequently, until onions begin to brown, 7 to 9 minutes. Add water and cook, stirring frequently, until onions are soft, 2 to 4 minutes. Stir in garlic, bay leaves, oregano and pepper flakes, and cook for 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes and reserved juice and clam juice, and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 5 minutes.
Submerge halibut in broth, cover and gently simmer until fish is cooked through, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove pot from heat and, using slotted spoon, transfer halibut to a plate, cover with aluminum foil and set aside.
Bring clams, wine and butter to boil in a covered 12-inch skillet over high heat. Steam until clams just open, 5 to 8 minutes, transferring them to pot with tomato broth as they open.
Once all clams have been transferred to a pot, add mussels to skillet, cover, and cook over high heat until mussels have opened, 2 to 4 minutes, transferring them to pot with tomato broth as they open. Pour cooking liquid from skillet into pot, being careful not to pour any grit from skillet into pot. Return broth to simmer.
Stir parsley into broth and season with salt and pepper to taste. Divide halibut among serving bowls. Ladle broth over halibut, making sure each portion contains both clams and mussels. Drizzle with olive oil and serve immediately.
Source: America’s Test Kitchen
Basil Grilled Oysters
Oysters, freshly shucked
2 cups basil
1 small shallot
1 clove of garlic
Dash of red pepper flakes
⅔ cup of olive oil
4 Tbsp champagne or red wine vinegar
In a blender, combine and process the basil vinaigrette ingredients. Top freshly shucked oysters with a dash of the vinaigrette and place on the grill for 5 minutes at medium-high heat. Before removing them from the grill, sprinkle on some grated pecorino Romano cheese.
Source: Deja Knight McMillan
4 cups mussels
½ oz extra-virgin olive oil
1 oz chopped yellow onion
1 oz chopped fresh garlic
1 oz white wine
1 oz Pernod (licorice liqueur)
Juice of one freshly squeezed, whole lemon
1 oz chopped, fresh basil
Heat the oil in sauté pan. Add mussels and dome with a second sauté pan. Once all mussels have opened, add the onions and garlic. Cook until onions are translucent. Add white wine and bring to a quick boil. Add the Pernod and cook until the alcohol has burned off. Add freshly squeezed lemon juice and basil. Bring to a boil and remove from heat, transfer to a bowl and enjoy.
Source: Matt Schwab, Beal’s Lobster Pier