- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2004

With Fat Tuesday on the calendar next week, you are undoubtedly worrying about clams and mussels. Or perhaps not. But if you’re thinking of serving a delicious seafood gumbo like the one that follows, you may need a little technique tune-up for handling the sometimes stubborn shellfish that look so perfect on a plate.

When you shop, look for clams or mussels with perfect shells that are closed. If you get them home and notice that one or two have opened, tap those shells and toss out any that fail to close. Open shells indicate death, and this is not what you want in your gumbo. Cracked shells are similar bad news and should also be discarded.

If you are not going to eat the clams or mussels immediately, remove them from the handy plastic bag in which they are probably swaddled and store them in an open bowl in the refrigerator for up to several days. They will remain fresher longer if stored in this manner.

Just before cooking, use a clean brush or toothbrush under cold running water to rinse and scrub the clams or mussels clean. If you don’t, the gumbo may be gritty. Mussels are more work to clean, both because they are generally more filled with sand or mud and because they have little beards attached.

To avoid as much work as possible, let mussels sit in a pot of cold water for 30 minutes or so before washing. This will give the sand and/or mud a chance to filter out. Then grab the beard with your fingers and pull it out and discard. Think about pulling weeds rather than a beard. The feeling is similar, and the idea is infinitely more attractive.

If you have decided to shuck or remove the clams or mussels from their shells — not a technique mandatory for this recipe but one that is essential for some — remember that it requires skill, tools and a bit of cunning.

Work over a bowl so that any of the wonderful clam liquid inside (the liquor) is caught, should it spill from the shell. Turn the clam so that the side to be opened points away from you, with the hinge toward you.

Insert a strong and thick blunt-ended clam knife between the two shells, and turn the shell until the knife reaches the hinge. Cut through the hinge and open the shell. Then use the knife to cut the clam free of the shell and to remove any shell pieces.

If the clam is stubborn about opening enough for you to insert the knife, place it in a bowl of very cold water for a few minutes.

If you are lucky, this will work. If not, there’s really not that much you can do. As has been proven more than once, nature actually has more control than we think.

Wait until the gumbo is almost done before placing clams or mussels in the simmering broth. They are done when they have opened, which will take 4 to 8 minutes, depending on the size. Toss out clams that refuse to open.

Why not use canned clams? Of course you can, but if you use clams or mussels in the shell, as they cook and open up, the wonderful liquid inside runs out into your stew, gumbo, whatever, leaving you with the incomparable flavor of the sea. They also look pretty on a plate.

Seafood gumbo

1 pound clams or mussels in the shell

4 tablespoons oil

3 tablespoons flour

1 onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced (or 2 teaspoons minced)

1 bell pepper, chopped

3 stalks celery, chopped

2 quarts tomato clam juice

1 cup ham, cut in bite-sized pieces

8 ounces andouille sausage (or other spicy sausage), sliced

1 28-ounce can tomatoes, drained

1 teaspoon Tabasco or ⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste

½ teaspoon salt

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon ground thyme

1 teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon file powder

1 pound raw, cleaned shrimp

3 crab legs, cut at joints

White rice

Shuck clams or mussels, if desired, or wash and keep in the shell. Set aside.

In a Dutch oven or other large pot, heat oil for 30 seconds and then stir in flour and cook, stirring, until flour turns dark brown. (This is called making a roux.) Add onion, garlic, bell pepper and celery, and cook, stirring often, until onion just starts to brown, about 10 minutes. Add tomato clam juice, ham, sausage, tomatoes, Tabasco or cayenne, salt, bay leaves, thyme and basil, and simmer slowly for 1½ hours, adding water by ½ cups if mixture starts to become too thick or dry.

Stir in file powder, then add clams or mussels, shrimp and crab, and cook, covered, until shrimp is cooked, crab is heated through and clams or mussels open, if still in the shell, 4 to 8 minutes. Serve over rice.

Makes about 8 servings.

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