Shellfish 101

Summer is here and we have some ideas about how to serve your favourite fresh seafood.

07 Nov 2009

Anyone who's ever sat down to a plate of freshly prepared shellfish would agree that it's probably as close as you can get to gourmet heaven. Read more about the basics of preparing shellfish and then scroll down for 5 great shellfish recipes.

Strictly speaking, crustaceans (lobster, crayfish, crabs, prawns, langoustines and shrimps), (mussels and oysters) and cephalopods (calamari or squid, octopuses and cuttlefish) are all classified as shellfish. But here we will focus on the basics of crustaceans.

Crayfish and lobster
, also known as rock lobster, are caught right around our coastline, although those caught on the West Coast are generally larger than their East Coast counterparts. They all have rough, prickly, reddish-brown, hard bodies with sweet, firm, white flesh. The hard shells become bright red, pink or orange-striped when cooked.

European and American Lobster have a set of heavy claws ending in pincers, with a smoother shell. Mottled, greeny-blue with brown colouring, they turn red when cooked. Most of the meat is in the claws, which must be cracked with a hammer before you can get at it. Langoustines or Dublin Bay prawns are expensive and don't have much flesh. They look like slim, small lobsters with lighter claws and paler shells.

How to cook crayfish

Shellfish should be bought live, but if this isn't possible, always check your dead crayfish for freshness by flexing the tail backwards. If fresh, it will spring back sharply. Plunge you live crayfish straight into salted, boiling water and simmer for five minutes for the first 500g and three minutes for each additional 500g. You can also put the crayfish into a pan, drizzle with olive oil and roast in a hot oven until the shell turns red. A kilogram of crayfish will take about 15 minutes then it's done.

Once cooked, with a large, sharp knife, cut the lobster in half lengthwise and pull out and discard the black vein that runs down the centre of the tail, as well as the small sand sack at the base of the head. The flesh is found in the tail, legs and joints and the tomalley, the creamy grey-green liver, is considered a delicacy. Simply remove the white meat from the shell. Pull out the tail meat. Twist off the claws, then break the shell to extract the claw meat.

ary from five to 18 cm in length and range in colour from transparent pink, to the deep bluey-black of the Tiger prawn. Most turn pink or red when cooked and are low in fat and cholesterol. Prawns should be frozen solid when purchased, be they cooked and frozen or frozen raw (green). It's a good idea to defrost prawns up to three hours before cooking to enhance the flavour. Devein them while they're still frozen by first running a sharp knife along the back to remove the black intestinal tract. The shell can then easily be removed, leaving the tail attached to the body. It's up to you if you want to remove the head.

How to cook prawns
Before cooking prawns, be sure to rinse and drain them well before you cook them, and dry them using paper towel. Simply season with salt and pepper, lemon juice or soy sauce and leave to absorb the flavours for 10 to 15 minutes. Then toss your raw prawns into boiling, salted water, adding a bay leaf, peppercorns, mustard seeds, dried chilli and fresh ginger, or sliced lemon and onion. Remove when they rise to the surface. You can also cook them in a slightly oiled hot pan for a few minutes until still glassy in the centre, or grill them, brushed with garlicky lemon butter.

Shrimp and crab
There are numerous varieties of shrimps, among them brown, white, pink, royal red, brine, and rock shrimp. Shrimps are available shelled or unshelled, raw (green) or cooked, and fresh or frozen. Raw shrimp should smell of the sea with no hint of ammonia. Cooked, shelled shrimp should look plump and succulent. Before storing fresh, uncooked shrimp, rinse them under cold, running water and drain thoroughly. You don't have to devein small or medium-sized shrimp, except for cosmetic purposes. But because the intestinal vein of larger shrimp contains grit, it should be removed. Shrimps are ideal for cocktail snacks, for use in paella or Asian dishes or simply boiled, grilled or fried.

Crabs are sought after for their sweet, succulent meat and becoming more available in South Africa, although rarely fresh. If you do buy fresh crab, remove the top shell, lungs and intestines, break away the mouth and bottom side apron, break the claws off and keep them on ice until you're ready to cook. Whole crabs and crabmeat can be cooked in a variety of ways including frying, boiling, steaming (about for the same length of time as for crayfish) or in soups, gumbos or crab cakes.

5 shellfish recipes

1. Crayfish curry

2. Lobster thermidor

3. Vietnamese rolls

4. Prawn and nut stuffed calamari 

5. Seafood parcels on herb mayonnaise


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