Wellness Wednesday: Keep clam and carry on!

Happy Wellness Wednesday! Shucks, you guys. I have to apologize that last week’s Wellness Wednesday post (or lack thereof) was such a clam-ity. I wanted to flex my culinary mussels, but I feel like a shell of my former charming self. It was so shellfish of me to withhold this clam-dunk of a recipe from you, my gentle readers.

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If I stop making “clam” puns, will you forgive me?

This week we’re headed back out to the oceans with another seemingly fancy, but super-easy, seafood recipe. I love seafood. I’m lucky to live in Seattle, where I can get my mits on fresh, local, frutta di mare at a moments notice.

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Fish and shellfish are delicious sources of omega three fatty acids, and they pack a powerful protein-punch. Shellfish in particular are great sources of iron and B-vitamins; which is great for anemic runners who eat very little red meat!

Source: http://seafoodhealthfacts.org/seafood_nutrition/patients/composition_chart.php
Source: http://seafoodhealthfacts.org/seafood_nutrition/ patients/composition_chart.php

Unfortunately, while eating these superfoods of the sea is healthy for humans, the way that humans harvest fish can be harmful to the planet. According to the most recent surveys, 7% of the world’s fisheries are depleted, and 17% are over-exploited (which is a one-way ticket to depletion city). Buying fish can be confusing. Is fresh better than farmed? (Usually, but it depends on the fish, and where the farm is). Was this fish caught sustainably? (If it came from one of the U.S.-managed fisheries, yes…if it comes from abroad, probably not). Do I need to worry about mercury or BPA levels? (Yes).

Luckily your fish does not have to be elusive! There are fantastic resources available to help you in your seafood shopping. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program aims to educate consumers to put their purchasing power towards prosperity through sustainable choices.  They publish a pocket guide and mobile app listing the most ocean-friendly options to order at restaurants and grocery stores.

NOAA’s Fish-Watch is in charge of monitoring domestic fisheries and seafood farms. They have an awesome, extremely user friendly website that gives a “Seafood Profile” for almost any fish you’d be interested in buying: from anchovies to wreckfish.

This is a Wreckfish, apparently no fish start with the letter "Z."
This is a Wreckfish, apparently no fish start with the letter “Z.”

The profile for each species gives information on population levels, fishing, habitat impacts and by-catch. It gives you an overview of the fish, the fishery, current research, AND tasty recipes.

The resources I linked to above are great. However, I understand that buying fish can be a little daunting. Sometimes you want to just pick up some protein quickly from the grocery store, without cross-referencing a nutrition facts table and two government databases to determine whether your choice gets Poseidon’s stamp of approval.

"I'm Poseidon, and I approve of this fish!"
“I’m Poseidon, and I approve of this fish!”

I love my Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch App, but when I’m seafood shopping I typically use a much simpler rule of thumb: the lower on the food chain a fish is, the more sustainable (and healthful) it is likely to be. Smaller fish have shorter lifespans and reproduce quickly, making them less vulnerable to overfishing. Big fish, like swordfish, take a long time to reach maturity. While they are growing up, the big fish eat the smaller fish, so they tend to accumulate toxins (like mercury!) in their flesh. They are some of the most threatened populations in the oceans. You don’t have to swear off them entirely (I don’t want to live in a world where I can’t have ahi tuna), but they should be eaten occasionally, rather than often, for your health and the health of the planet. Shellfish, as filter feeders, are as low on the food chain as you can go. The fact that they happen to be delicious, nutritional powerhouses, in addition to being sustainable choices, is icing on the cake…the crab-cake.

Today’s recipe is a lightning fast steamed shellfish dish, inspired by latin-american flavors. I used to think about mussels and clams as strictly “out to dinner foods.” They always taste AMAZING when you order them at a restaurant, surely the chef spent HOURS slaving away in the kitchen to turn gastropods into gastronomic genius.

I was so wrong. Shellfish is dead easy to cook at home: you can throw together a delicious, light, and healthful meal in less than 20 minutes flat. All you need to do is steam open a bunch of cephalopods in a big pot with some nicely flavored liquid. I learned how to cook mussels from my favorite sacred text: Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

"Bless us Saint Julia. May our soufflés soar, our wine pour, and our meals be merry"
“Bless us Saint Julia. May our soufflés soar, our wine pour, and our meals be merry”

Julia Child helped me face my fears with her bulletproof bivalve recipe: Moules a la mariniere  (here’s a great interpretation of this classic recipe by Deb at the smittenkitchen). Julia’s recipe cooks up mussels with garlic, shallots, parsley and white wine (of course there’s wine) for a simple, satisfying, and supremely French supper. I put my own spin on this classic technique, headed south of the border and cooked up some Caliente Clams in Tangy Tomatillo Sauce. I used clams because I couldn’t find mussels at PCC (this is the first time that my favorite grocery store in Seattle has ever let me down). I was craving something more spicy than sophisticated, so I went with some latin-inspired ingredients. Cooking is all about improvisation: take the ingredients you have and turn them into the food you want. So keep clam, and get the shuck into the kitchen….let’s get cooking.

I’ll give you the measurements to make a single serving of this dish, because that’s how things went down in my kitchen. However, I must recommend scaling up by a factor of two, and serving this with margaritas to somebody you intend to seduce. Cooking is sexy, and shellfish may be bona-fide aphrodisiacs.

To make this dish (which I ate in its entirety) I gathered:

6 tomatillos

2 cloves of garlic

¼ of a white onion

jalapeño

~¾ lb fresh clams in their shells

1 beer (I used an IPA, anything but a stout would work well)

Fresh cilantro

Olive oil

Salt and Pepper

My wits

We are going to start by blistering some tomatillos. Tomatillos are those funny-looking green tomatoes that have their own jackets. They have a tangy flavor. We’re going to add a layer of smokiness on top of the tang by broiling the bejeezus out of these bad-boys.

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Remove the papery husk, give them a rinse, and set your tomatillos on a foil-lined baking sheet.

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Crank up the broiler and set place the baking sheet on the top oven rack. Let the broiler’s dragon-breath toast those tomatillos. You want the skin to blacken and blister. You might hear some squeaking and popping if the tomatillos burst and release their juices. That’s a good thing, we’ll use the juices later. Makes sure to peek in on the tomatillos in about 5 minutes, and turn them over so that they experience the inferno on all sides.

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You’ve got some time to kill while the tomatillos roast, so chop up 2 cloves of garlic, and ¼ of an onion.

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Now collect a jalapeño, and ask yourself a question: can you HANDLE the heat!?

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If you like spicy foods, chop up the whole jalapeño, seeds and all. If you want a milder dish, remove the seeds and ribs from the jalapeño before processing your pepper. In either case, be sure to WASH YOUR HANDS after handling hot peppers. The peppers we’re using aren’t super-intense (they rank a mere 5,000 Scoville heat units, compared to the 300,000 Scoville units put out by a habanero pepper) you’re in for a severe stinging sensation if you happen to rub your eyes after handling jalapeños.

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I like spicy foods so I left the ribs and the seeds in place. The compound inside hot chili peppers that makes them hurt so good is called capsaicin. The taste of spicy isn’t actually a taste at all. Capsaicin itself is flavorless: it doesn’t interact with taste-buds, but rather directly interacts with pain receptors to produce a burning sensation; that’s why rubbing your hands in your eyes after chopping hot peppers makes you cry like a baby–even though you don’t have taste buds in your eye! Capsaicin is produced by the ribs of the pepper (the placental tissue) and acts a mammal-munching deterrent: pepper seeds are spread by birds, capsaicin doesn’t stimulate the pain receptors on bird nerve-cells. Paradoxically, capsaicin is a great topical analgesic. Capsaicin produces such a dramatic pain response that when you rub it on an area that is feeling slightly painful, the nerve cells in the area get overwhelmed by the signal and just turn off, masking the underlying pain. Capsaicin cream is an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis!

I digress. If you want your clams to be caliente, leave the seeds and ribs in place. If you’re a wuss, cut them out. In either case, heat up some olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.

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Slide your onion, and garlic into the hot oil. Add salt and pepper, and cook until your things begin to become fragrant.

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Add the chopped jalapeño to the pan, and stir. The pepper is going to release some pretty potent fumes when it hits the heat, so stand back. However, if you are feeling congested, leaning over the pot and taking a big whiff is a no-fail method for clearing your sinuses. If your pepper is too pungent open a window; anything worthwhile should involve some blood, sweat, and tears.

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Those tomatillos are probably ready by now. Take them out from under the broiler.

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Add the tomatillos (and any juices they might have thrown off) directly to your onions and pepper. Stir everything around. Use your spoon to crush the tomatillos and break them down as much as possible.

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Sauté everything together for a few minutes, then add roughly ¾ cup of beer to the mix. This is going to be the deliciously flavored liquid for steaming open our clams. I used an IPA because that’s what I had in my house. I imagine that a light Mexican beer would be a delicious, and thematically appropriate choice, as well.

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Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn down the heat and let everything simmer together for 2 minutes.

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Take your clams (or mussels!) out of the fridge.

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Bonus if your seafood counter cleaned them for you! If not, scrub the shells under cold running water, and pull off any straggly beards you see with the edge of a knife

Add your shellfish to the simmering liquid.

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Put a lid over the pot, and let the steam work its magic.

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While your shellfish are steaming, chop some cilantro.

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Grab yourself some good-quality whole grain bread, and stick a few slices in the toaster.

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Check your clams after approximately 5-7 minutes. They should all have sprung open.

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Throw a generous handful of chopped fresh cilantro into the pot, and mix.

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Serve immediately, accompanied with a big green salad (for your veggies) and that crusty whole-grain bread (for soaking up the delicious juices). Enjoy!

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Make sure you have a shell-bowl!

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3 thoughts on “Wellness Wednesday: Keep clam and carry on!

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