Pairings: Behind the Scenes/ Under the Sea

There are misconceptions galore concerning crustaceans and shellfish. Here are the answers to some pesky questions on purchasing and preparing these culinary superstars, and pairing wines with what's on the plate.

Behind the Scenes: Under the Sea


There are misconceptions galore concerning crustaceans and shellfish.  Here are the answers to some pesky questions on purchasing and preparing these culinary superstars, and pairing wines with what’s on the plate.





Your mother taught you to put your napkin neatly in your lap, and never to slurp, or eat with your hands, let alone lick your fingers. Then one day you found your young self in a fancy restaurant facing a lobster. And all rules went out the window. They put a bib on you, gave you a set of industrial-looking tools to crack the claw, and expected you to suck the juice out of the legs, and clean yourself up with a foil-wrapped wipe.

As an adult, you know, of course, that the old rule of red wine with meat and white with fish is as outmoded as frozen fish sticks, but how about all those other scary seafood rules and terms? For example…

How do I order clams?

The names are so confusing. Hard cherrystones, razors, littlenecks, nannynose, geoduck (pronounced “gooey-duck”) and quahog (pronounced “co-hog”) are but a few of the oddball adjectives and names used to describe clams. All that you really need to know is that soft shells are cooked before eating while clams in hard shells can be eaten raw. Beyond that, choose clams from local waters, if possible, and from a purveyor you trust. 

What happened to the beards we used to see on mussels?

These days, most mussels are farm-raised and come to you clean—no beards and no scrubbing. Just a little rinse and they are ready to steam.

When I’m choosing a lobster, is it really important to know the gender?

What, you can’t tell the difference? Seriously: Some people, indeed, some lobstermen, will tell you that the meat of a male lobster is tougher, and that the female’s is sweeter. If this sounds too stereotypical to be true, it is. It’s a myth. (Of course, the female’s roe is prized by many.) The important thing is that the lobster be lively and happy before you meet it, no matter its gender.

Is it true that you should only eat oysters in months with an “r”?

This sounds like folklore, but there is some science to the old claim. It is during the late spring and summer (the months without “r”s) that many oyster varieties spawn; so it is is traditionally believed that eating them (therefore, encouraging fishermen to harvest them) during this time is harmful to future oyster populations. The truth is, many oysters have different seasons and reasons, so oyster lovers shouldn’t be shackled by the letter “r.”

When I see abnormally large scallops in the fish store, should I be suspicious that they’re really cut-up pieces of finfish purveyed as pricey sea scallops?

No. A scallop can be as large as a small fist with a plate-sized shell, or as small as your fingernail. Unlike most shellfish, which are sold in the shell, scallops are almost always purchased naked, though avante garde restaurants sometimes offer them in the shell. Diver scallops are not a species, but simply those caught by divers rather than nets, and are presumably of better quality. However, as with all other shellfish, quality mostly depends on freshness and treatment after harvesting. 

How do I determine freshness?

Except for shrimp, which are almost always frozen unless you buy them straight off the boat, the best shellfish should still be “breathing” when you buy them. No problem with lobsters and crab—you will see them scuttling and swimming in the tank. What about the more stationary shellfish? Either catch it yourself, or trust the person who sells it to you. That means making friends with your local fishmonger. High-quality supermarkets are increasingly reliable sources of fresh seafood, but these superstores probably can’t pinpoint the sources of their products nor can they assure you when it was caught. So nothing really replaces the small independent shop. You may pay more, but you will know what you are getting.

Then what do I do with my precious catch?

In my opinion: very little. Gentle cooking, such as poaching, steaming, sautéing, quick roasting or grilling, maintains the integrity of delicate shellfish. A little butter, a spritz of lemon, and perhaps a few herbs are the requisite enhancements. Simple presentations that highlight the natural beauty are always best.

And what should I drink with this culinary masterpiece?

“Whatever you like” is the best answer, but there is always the chance that the beverage you are in the mood for will smother the subtleties of the dish you went to great trouble (and expense) to prepare. Or vice versa. So let’s fine-tune, just for fun: The second best answer is “think bubbly with seafood.” Not hard to remember, and pretty accurate. A dry, sparkling wine will complement almost any crustacean, shellfish or fish dish. You will want a lighter-bodied sparkler with simpler, lighter preparations, and a medium-bodied wine if your fish is dressed in a sauce or accompanied with drawn butter.

For still wines, the same rule applies: Match the weight of the wine with the weight (not necessarily the spiciness) of the dish.

A Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris, Vinho Verde, Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc would work well with a crustacean or shellfish that is gently cooked and served with a squeeze of lemon. If the presentation includes any of the classic condiments—cocktail sauce, creamy dressings like tartar sauce—or the seafood is incorporated into a salad with a creamy dressing, a Sauvignon Blanc, particularly due to its zesty acidity, would be a fine complement.

A medium-bodied dish is one that involves frying, breading or heavy doses of mayonnaise or dressing. Think of a sloppy old po’boy or roll, or the increasingly popular coconut shrimp and its cousins. For these, I recommend a medium-bodied Chardonnay or Viognier.

If your lobster, crab or shellfish is drenched in a rich sauce or is incorporated into a sauce-rich cake, like a crabcake; if it’s part of a creamy bisque, chowder or stew; even if it’s prepared simply but presented with a rich accompaniment, like lobster with drawn butter, I suggest a rich, buttery Chardonnay or even a light red like Beaujolais.

To tantalize you with the exotic possibilities of crustaceans and shellfish, we asked three chefs, all seafood experts, to share a signature seafood dish and complementary wine recommendations.

Maine Lobster Salad

David Daniels, executive chef of The Federalist, the signature restaurant of XV Beacon Hotel in Boston, prepares a classic, simple salad that showcases local ingredients and is in keeping with the traditional style of his restaurant.


Four 1-pound lobsters (this size is also known as “chicken” lobsters)

1 cup celery, diced

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1 tablespoon shallots, finely chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon white truffle oil

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

2 slices toasted brioche, cut into triangles

6 cups mixed baby greens

Cook the lobsters in a large pot of boiling salted water for about 8 minutes until shells are bright red. Plunge the lobsters into a pot of ice water to stop the cooking and quickly cool them. Remove all meat from the lobster; cut meat into bite-sized pieces.

In a mixing bowl, combine the celery, mayonnaise, parsley, shallots, olive and truffle oils, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Stir in the lobster meat.

Spoon the lobster salad into a small ring mold and pack lightly. Spread the greens on a serving platter. Invert the mold onto the greens. Garnish with the brioche triangles. Alternatively, the lobster salad can be spooned atop greens on individual plates. Serves 4.

Wine recommendation: Chef Daniels recommends the 2002 Newton “Cuvée Federalist” from Napa; this is a wine blended by Su Ha Newton especially for the Federalist. Newton’s 2002 Chardonnay has the same elegance, creamy feel, crisp structure and buttery finish.

Scallop Tandoori

Eric Ripert, executive chef of the 4-star Le Bernardin in New York City, is renowned for his expertise with seafood in all its forms. His recipes set the tone for restaurants everywhere, and here he gives lovely Maine diver scallops a gentle Indian treatment. Look for pickled mango and tandoori powder in the Asian section of good markets and specialty stores.


For the salad:

1/4 cup Japanese rice vinegar

1/2 tablespoon sugar

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 English cucumber, peeled and quartered, then cut into 1¼4 -inch slices

2 tablespoons Indian pickled mango, pulp only

1 tablespoon cilantro, thinly sliced

1 cup mixed baby greens

For the scallops:

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 teaspoons tandoori powder, divided

Salt and pepper, to taste

12 large scallops, preferably Maine diver scallops

1 garlic clove, minced

1 teaspoon herbes de Provence

To make the salad: In a small skillet, heat the vinegar and sugar just until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the olive oil, then the cucumber until warmed through. Remove from heat and stir in mango and a pinch of salt. Cool, then stir in cilantro. Let cool, then drain off liquid and reserve while preparing the scallops.

To prepare the scallops: In a bowl, mix the olive oil, lemon juice, 1¼4 teaspoon of the tandoori powder, and pinches each of salt and pepper. Rub the top of each scallop with garlic, herbes de Provence and the remaining tandoori powder. Place the scallops in the oil mixture, turning them over to coat all sides, then remove from the oil but reserve the remaining oil. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Sear the scallops about 1 minute per side until golden. The scallops should be rare in the middle but not cold.

To serve, spoon a small amount of the cucumber salad onto each of 6 plates. Sprinkle the cucumbers with the greens and dribble with a little olive oil. Arrange the scallops next to the salad, then dribble with the reserved olive oil mixture. Serves 6.

Wine recommendation: Le Bernardin Sommelier Michel Couvreux pairs this salad with white Graves, such as Château Villa Bel-Air 2002, noting that the Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon blend is “extremely elegant, with a fresh nose, marked by citrus notes and exotic fruit. It also shows good, fat texture and roundness.”

Mussels with Wine, Garlic and Herbs

Jasper White, whose Summer Shack Restaurants are New England favorites, and whose cookbooks are perennial bestsellers, is the definitive expert on clams, mussels and lobster. Chef White offers this classic recipe for mussels steamed in wine and herbs. (Note: If you use wild mussels rather than farm-raised, you will need to scrub and debeard them first.)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 bay leaf, broken in half

1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper

2 tablespoons shallots, minced

2 tablespoons fresh thyme, minced

2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, minced

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

2 cups white wine

3 pounds mussels, cleaned, rinsed, and drained

4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 tablespoon parsley, chopped

1 tablespoon chives, chopped

Heat the oil in a sauté pan or pot large enough to hold the mussels. Sauté the bay leaf and pepper over medium heat for 30 seconds until sizzling, then add the shallots, thyme, tarragon and garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the wine, cover the pan and bring to a boil. Add the mussels. Cover and steam 6 to 7 minutes, or until all the shells are open. (Discard any mussels whose shells have not opened within this time frame.)

Remove pan from heat and use a slotted spoon to transfer the mussels to a large bowl. Return pan to the heat and bring the liquid to a rolling boil. While the liquid is boiling, whisk in the butter, one piece at a time. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the parsley and chives. Pour over the mussels in the bowl and serve. Serves 4.

Wine recommendation: The wine of choice is the same one used to cook the mussels, if you can spare the two cups. Chef White recommends a crisp, somewhat acidic wine. A medium-bodied Sauvignon Blanc, such as Tramin 2003 Sauvignon from Italy, fits that bill, as would a quality Pinot Gris.

Published on August 3, 2005