How to Buy, Prepare and Pair Seafood with Wine
Buying and cooking seafood can paralyze even the most confident home cooks with fear, so much so that more than two-thirds of all seafood in the U.S. is consumed in restaurants.
But when smartly sourced, good seafood needs little technique to be spectacular. With just a few simple tips and recipes, even the biggest fish-o-phobe can roast a whole fish, serve oysters on the half shell, steam lobster and whip up shrimp scampi.
—Illustrations by Brian Clark
Freshness is paramount, so ask your fishmonger to show you the bag tag that came with the batch of oysters you’re purchasing from—every package of commercial oysters has one, and it lists the harvest date. Look for oysters that feel heavy for their size and have tightly closed shells. Because wild oysters spawn in warmer months, an old adage advised that oysters should only be eaten in months containing the letter r (September–April). Today, commercial farming and shipping methods have made oysters available year-round, but you may still encounter spawning in late spring and summer. While safe to eat, spawning oysters can be unpleasantly milky, and after spawning, distinctly watery or flabby.
Refrigerate oysters in a bowl or shallow tray, cup-side down, covered with a damp cloth. Do not submerge oysters in water or under ice. Stored correctly, oysters can survive at least a week out of water, but the sooner you eat them, the better. Before cooking or serving, discard any oysters that don’t close tight when tapped. To maximize their sweet, briny, mineral complexities, nothing beats a freshly shucked oyster, slurped “naked” (without lemon juice, cocktail sauce or other accouterments). A flash of gentle heat in a fryer, on the grill or stirred into a stew can yield divine results, too.
Muscadet, Chablis and blanc de blancs Champagne, loaded with minerality and bracing acidity, are classic accompaniments to oysters, but saké or beer can highlight different dimensions. Silky, delicately rice-flavored junmai styles of saké can accentuate the sweetness and fruitiness in raw oysters without overwhelming acidity. For rich, fatty fried oysters or oyster stew, consider a sharp, citrusy gueuze beer, a Belgian blend of lambic brews. It will refresh the palate while adding subtle umami and funk. For grilled oysters, the brisk, lemony acidity of a coastal California Chardonnay will contrast the delicacy’s minerality and brininess with ripe stone fruit and toast notes.
How to shuck an oyster:
Place oyster cup-side down on a flat surface secured by a folded dish towel. Insert oyster knife into the hinge. Applying gentle pressure, wriggle the blade back and forth until the oyster pops. Run the blade flat over the meat to sever the muscle connecting the top shell. Detach the muscle under the meat with a knife, taking care not to release the oyster’s juices. Serve.
Buy lobsters that are alive and kicking—literally. The more a lobster thrashes and bucks when picked up, the fresher it is. Lobsters, like crabs, begin to molt in the summer, shedding their hard shells and developing larger soft shells. Soft-shelled lobsters can be waterlogged, yielding a lower meat-to-shell ratio than those with hard shells. However, they’re often sweeter and more delicate in texture than hard-shelled lobsters, with shells that can be ripped easily by hand. Hard-shelled lobsters, while requiring more labor to shuck, can have a firmer, meatier texture, with a more minerally, briny taste profile.
A whole one-and-a-half-pound lobster is perfect for one person. A three-pound lobster can serve two (or not). Whole lobster can be boiled or grilled, but steaming is easiest, requiring little fuss or mess. Grilling can result in uneven cooking between the tail and claws, and boiling can lead to waterlogged bodies. Like oysters, fresh lobsters are heavenly with little or no embellishment. While traditionally accompanied by melted butter, a splash of lemon juice is all you need to highlight lobster’s naturally sweet, buttery flavor.
Silky and supple as if swathed with cream, weightier styles of white Burgundy like Meursault or Chassagne-Montrachet are sublime with lobster.To highlight lobster’s sweetness, however, try unoaked, fruity, floral white wines like Albariño (the go-to seafood wine in Spain) or Grüner Veltliner from Austria. An ethereally light junmai daiginjo saké lends crisp, sweet melon nuances while matching lobster’s saline, mineral tones. For beer, consider a subtle, complex style like a saison, with hints of spice, malt, citrus and flowers delicate enough to accent but not overwhelm lobster’s subtle flavors.
How to steam a lobster:
Buy one 1½-pound lobster per person, or a 3-pound lobster for 2 people. Bring 1 inch of salted water to a boil in a pot large enough to hold lobster(s). Plunge lobster(s) headfirst into the pot. Cover tightly, return water to a boil and steam until the lobster is bright red, about 12–15 minutes for a 1½-pound lobster, or 20–25 minutes for a 3-pound lobster. Remove lobster(s) and let cool for 5 minutes before serving.
Often, the freshest shrimp you can buy are frozen. Because they’re highly perishable, shrimp are usually flash frozen at sea or in farms, then defrosted by your fishmonger. Rare exceptions are seasonal wild shrimp from Maine, the Pacific or the Gulf Coast. For the highest quality (and often, the lowest cost), choose frozen, uncooked shrimp in the shell labeled IQF (individually quick frozen). Shrimp in the shell maintain flavor and texture better, and buying frozen allows you to control the defrosting process. Look for bags of whole, plump shrimp without excessive frost.
Defrost frozen shrimp overnight in the refrigerator or soak in cold water for 15 minutes just prior to cooking. For informal dinners, try cooking shrimp in the shell. Whether grilled, sautéed, simmered or fried, the shrimp, and any liquid they are cooked in, will be infused with deep, rich flavor. Cooked shrimp can be easily peeled at the table using fingers. For more formal settings, peel and devein shrimp prior to cooking. To avoid rubbery, overcooked shrimp, cook quickly at high heat, about 3–5 minutes, until just pink and beginning to curl.
For simple preparations of steamed or grilled shrimp, fresh, zesty Vinho Verde from Portugal or Txakoli from Spain lend just the right accents of lime and lemon. Both pungent and herbal, garlic and Sauvignon Blanc are sympathetic friends, making shrimp scampi the perfect counterpart to a grassy New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or a refreshing, mineral Sancerre. Shrimp cocktail is traditionally served with horseradish-spiced tomato sauce—a challenge when pairing with wine. An off-dry Riesling or brisk rosé sparkler lends enough acidity and punch, but a hoppy IPA-style beer offers more contrast and kick.
How to devein shrimp:
Starting with the underside, grab the shrimp’s legs with your fingers and gently peel away the shell. Using a paring knife, make a shallow cut down the center of the back of the shrimp. Use the knife tip to pull out the black, vein-like intestinal tract.
From branzino to orata, red snapper to black bass, there are a host of available options at your market. It’s easier to judge the freshness of whole fish than fillets. Look for bright, clear eyes, shiny skin, firm flesh and no indication of browning. If possible, ask your fishmonger to let you take a quick whiff—fresh fish smells clean like seawater, with no ammonia stink. A two-pound fish will feed 2–3 people. By having your fishmonger gut, scale and clean the fish, there’s very little prep work involved for you later.
Few recipes are as forgiving and simple as roasting a whole fish. Since it’s been prepped by the fishmonger, your fish is basically ready to cook. Just dress it with oil, salt and pepper, and stuff it with aromatic herbs (rosemary, oregano, parsley or cilantro), lemon or lime slices, fennel, garlic or ginger. If you choose your aromatics wisely, you may not even need a knife or cutting board. Then, all it takes is a blast of high heat and a splash of lemon juice or olive oil to transform it into dinner.
Roasted whole fish is a culinary artist’s blank canvas. While the flesh is subtly sweet and minerally, it’s the herbs and aromatics roasted inside that provide most of the flavor. Slices of ginger or lemongrass would pair perfectly with the exotic spice and lychee flavors of a dry, full-bodied Alsatian Gewurztraminer. Sprigs of rosemary, thyme and lemon zest scream out for a dry, subtly berried Provençal rosé with characteristic garrigue, or herbal tones. The hints of licorice in fennel slices would pair particularly well with the star anise notes present in many fragrant ginjo-style sakés.
How to roast a whole fish:
Preheat oven to 450˚ F. Rinse fish with water, pat dry with paper towels and place on a lined baking sheet. Spread olive oil over skin and inside fish with your hands. Salt and pepper liberally, then insert aromatics into the body cavity. Roast for 15–20 minutes, or until meat is opaque and flakes easily with a fork.
- 4Whole Fish