I really have to be in the right mindset for a seafood risotto. Not because I don’t like the combination of the two. No, in fact my ideal image of not only the perfect risotto but also my ultimate comfort food would have to be a big bowl of creamy, luxurious risotto, clattering about in my bowl from the sounds of shells clanking around, offering up their tenderly sweet and briny decadence—piccoli gioielli del mare!
However, in spite of this siren-like call of hunger, the idea of a risotto sans Parmesan is also a hard idea for me to stomach so setting my heart on a seafaring risotto takes a bit of internal convincing. I could be making any other risotto (like the Italian Sausage and Roasted Fennel Risotto or Green Garlic Risotto), thinking all the while that I could have easily foregone the Parm and gone the oceanic route; that is until the final moments when the starchy sheen of an almost finished risotto is staring back up at me, plump pearls of Arborio begging to be fed a generous grating of Parmigiano-Reggiano. I can’t help but feel inclined to obey its call, but for a seafood risotto it’s one that would need to be ignored.
I’m not one to blindly abide by authoritative instructions—particularly pertaining to food, though not exclusively—but I do feel very strongly about the Italian belief that the combining of la frutti del mare and cheese. While it’s not something you’ll find in any Italian culinary bylaws it is a concept most consider being absolute sacrilege. The reasons have oft been debated—everything from their respective flavors being too combative to geographic conflictions, with cheese-making regions being mostly landlocked with little seafood available—as has its validity in modern cookery. What with shrimp and grits, lobster mac n’ cheese, the salmon-cream cheese combo, and Filet-O-Fish on menus it seems to a something most don’t concern themselves with (just kidding on that last one). I can’t say I follow it religiously (see the aforementioned—I’m still kidding about the Filet, though) but I still can’t quite bring myself to mix seafood with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Call me a food snob if you want, but something about the cheese’s sharp nuttiness overpowers the seafood and leaves it with an almost spoiled fish taste.
But there are times when I can put my fetishistic need to grate Parmigiano over a pot of risotto aside, and when that happens this is a no-brainer. A few simple rules apply to working with mollusks:
- You want to use them the same day you purchase them, or within 24 hours at most.
- They shouldn’t smell fishy at the store, but rather like fresh sea air.
- Look for bags with little to no open shells. If any are open give them a tap or lightly squeeze them (like you’re making them talk… you know you’ve done it). If they’re alive they’ll slowly close on their own, but if they stay open they’re dead and should be discarded.
- If there are a lot of open shells in a bag skip the bag (or the market all together). It can be indicative of a bad batch or old inventory. Eating dead mussels can make you very sick so it’s in your best interest to take a drive to another market.
- Any with cracked or broken shells should also be discarded.
- When you get them home fill a large bowl with ice, lay a damp paper towel over the ice, and tumble the little guys over top. Make sure they don’t get submerged in the ice or water as it melts. Cover them with a single layer of damp paper towel. NEVER store them in plastic bags or sealed containers—they’ll suffocate and die.
- Before you start cooking check them again for life and discard any open bivalves that don’t close.
- At some point before soaking and cooking them you’ll want to give them a rinse to clean their outsides, and de-beard the mussels. Odds are good most won’t have their beards, but you’re bound to find a few. You’ll see little fibrous hairs sticking out of the shell. Grab them and pull them back towards the hinge of the mussel until it rips out. I usually use a dry paper towel to help me get a hold of them.
- I like to give mine a quick 5 – 10 minute soak in some cold water with a few pinches of baking soda or flour. The intent here is that they drink up the water, taste the bicarb or flour, and spit it out along with any sand and grit they may have in them. Someone once told me that since most clams and mussels on the market today are farm-raised they don’t have any sand in them, making this step unnecessary, but I play it safe never the less. At any rate, don’t let them sit in the water longer than 10 minutes (5 will do the trick). Then simply remove them from their bath and give them a quick, albeit gentle, cold rinse.
- After cooking, any that haven’t opened should be discarded. Don’t try to pry it open. It’s dead. Don’t eat it.
A few other worthy mentions on this recipe… The saffron is technically optional, but I don’t note it as such because its aroma lends such a nuance to the dish that I can’t contemplate this without it (it can be expensive, but I’ve had good luck finding it at its lowest price at Trader Joes or bulk spice or food stores). For the seafood stock, I used one by Kitchen Basics when it was available to me, but since I can’t find it here I make a quick shrimp stock with my stockpile of frozen shrimp shells. If both still elude you try substituting the stock with bottled clam juice (or, if you have a good seafood counter or fish monger, ask them).
So when I am at a certain level of mental preparedness, when the allure of the lacquered shine of a mussel’s shell or the seducing memories of a clam’s liqueur lingers and beckons me, this is what I make. And when selfishness (not shellfishness) takes over, scaling back the ratios is easy enough to make this just for one (by which I mean just cut everything in half and indulge as though the rest of the world doesn’t know or even exist). You won’t regret it.
(I make most of my risottos in my Lodge braising pan. It’s easily one of my favorite pieces of cookware that I own and very reasonably price!)
(Should you find yourself with any leftovers you can shape the chilled risotto into little cakes and fry in a cast iron pan with an even coating of olive oil. Dust them with flour to get a really good crust)
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|4 (or 3 greedy people)||20 minutes|
|25 - 30 minutes|
- 5 tablespoons butter divided
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1.5 - 2 pounds mussels scrubbed and de-bearded (smaller are best)
- 1.5 - 2 pounds clams manila or little neck, scrubbed
- A few pinches baking soda
- Heaping 1/2 t-spoon saffron
- 2 shallots finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic finely minced
- 1-1/2 cups Arborio rice
- 1/2 cup dry white wine such as Chardonnay (or extra dry white vermouth)
- 1/2 cup dry sherry
- 3-1/2 cups seafood stock or shrimp stock (see note)
- 1-1/2 cups water
- 1/2 t-spoon fresh minced thyme
- 1/2 t-spoon fresh minced oregano (or 1/4 t-spoon dried)
- 1 t-spoon kosher salt
- 1/4 t-spoon chili flakes
- 1/4 - 1/2 t-spoon lemon zest
- Heaping 1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley
- Bread for serving
- Start by dissolving the baking soda in a very large bowl of water and plunge shellfish into it. Let them soak for 10 minutes, then drain and rinse until gently running cool water. This encourages them to spit out any grit and sand they may have inside.
- Next, put the water in a pot that all of the mussels and clams can fit in. Bring it to a boil and then add the shellfish. Clamp on the lid, reduce the heat to low, and let the clams and mussels steam for until they just start to open—just about 5 – 6 minutes, depending on their size, until they're about halfway open. Remove the clams and mussels from the pan (or strain them out, reserving the liquid, if it's easier)
- Return the steaming liquid to the pot (if removed) and add the stock—there should be 5 cups of liquid, so if you’re short add a bit more water. Cover and place over medium-low heat and bring to gentle simmer. If it starts to boil, reduce the heat so it just simmers at a warm temp.
- Measure out the white wine or vermouth and the sherry into a measuring glass and add in the saffron, swirling it around to encourage the saffron to seep out its flavor and color.
- Meanwhile, over medium heat, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter and the olive oil in a Dutch oven, braiser pan, or some other heavy bottom or enameled cast iron pan until it’s hot and melted.
- Add in the shallots and a bit of salt and sauté until they’re fairly soft—about 5 minutes. Turn the heat down and stir in the garlic, thyme, oregano, lemon zest, and chili flakes. Stir about for just a minute before dumping in the Arborio and stirring well to coat in the butter and oil. Toss the rice in the oils over medium heat until they’re slightly opaque—just about 2 minutes.
- Pour in the saffron-infused alcohol and stir into the Arborio until it absorbs most of the liquid. Now, add a ladleful of the stock into the rice and stir constantly. This helps the rice to release its starches all the while absorbing the stock. Continue adding the stock a ladleful at a time, stirring it into the rice until most of the liquid is absorbed. Do not add any more stock until the rice has almost absorbed all of its current stock.
- In all, the stock absorbing should take about 20 minute, during which time remove the tender meat from the shellfish and roughly chop them—reserving a few in their shells for decoration and discarding any that stayed clamped shut—in between stirs. In the last few minutes of cooking the rice, when there’s only one or two ladles-worth of stock left, add in the shellfish (both chopped and still in-shell). Finish stirring in the remaining liquid.
- Shut off the heat, stir in the parsley, remaining tablespoon of butter and check for seasoning. I salt this pretty sparingly to begin with because the liqueur the clams and mussels give off can be quite salty and depending on how well the seafood stock is seasoned you may or may not need more salt at the end.
- Serve in warmed wide bowls with bread.
- See above for tips on buying and storing clams and mussels.
- Before cooking, make sure any open clams or mussels that don't close on their own after being lightly tapped or squeezed are discarded. Alternately, any that do not open after cooking should also be tossed.
- The way I used to make this was by skipping the step of pre-steaming and par-cooking the shellfish, waiting until I was about a third of the way through the stock-adding processes—lets say 12 or so minutes of the 20 left—and then adding the shellfish to pot, shells and all, and letting the residual heat of the pan slowly open them. You'll need to use a full-sized Dutch oven to do this, and maybe a bit more liquid (no more than 1/2 cup). While the prep is much easier it comes with added difficulty to eat, having to remove the meat from each shell as you eat. Nevertheless, still a viable option.
- One of the local grocery stores by where I used to live carried Kitchen Basics' seafood stock and I loved it. Unfortunately, nobody around here stocks it so, in lieu of a store-bought seafood stock, I use a homemade shrimp stock that couldn't be simpler to make. I hoard shells and tails from "EZ-Peel" shrimp in my freezer for stock-making. In addition to this risotto it's great in soups and bisque, gumbos and jambalaya, sauces... the list goes on .
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|2 quarts||5 minutes|
|About 25 minutes|
EZ Shrimp Stock
A simple and quick shrimp stock, using leftover shrimp shells.
- 1 pound shrimp shells including tails (from about 5 pounds-worth of shrimp)
- 3 quarts water
- 1 green onion split in half (optional)
- 1 t-spoon kosher salt
- Heat a pot (4 - 5 quarts in size) over medium heat. Drop in the shrimp shells and toss them about for a few minutes, until they start to turn coral-pink. Pour in the water and bring to a gentle simmer. Season with salt and keep simmering for 15 minutes.
- Shut off the heat and let it steep until cooled. Strain it through a fine mesh sieve.
- Wipe the pot clean. Return the stock to the pot and simmer for an additional 10 minutes or so, until it's down to 2 quarts.
- This will keep for about 3 - 5 days in the fridge, or frozen for 6 months.
Thanks for all of the details! Your risotto looks delicious! If I wanted to add frozen peas, should I add at the beginning or just cook separately and add at the end? Same question for squid, although I’m pretty sure that it should be cooked separately so as to not overcook.
I 1st had seafood risotto at a little restaurant and was hooked! They used saffron, little clams, mussels, peas, and shrimp and then they topped with it with a small piece of fried salmon (like a tailpiece). It was exquisite.
I can’t wait to try your recipe, especially with all the helpful tips. Thanks so much for publishing it!
Thanks, Dianna! I would add the peas towards the end. And I totally agree with you about cooking the calamari separately.
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