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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