Life

Three Food Writers Face Off In A Shellfish Cooking Challenge

I always look at a person differently if they don’t like shellfish. It’s sustainable, it’s not overly fishy, and it’s a key part of virtually all the world’s most beloved cuisines. Turning our food gaze in this direction seemed natural. But a shellfish challenge has some wrinkles, foremost being that it’s often best when left untreated.

That makes this cooking battle particularly fun: There’s a small margin for error and the “you should have just left it alone” quotient is high. As always, your shares, Tweets, and comments are much appreciated.

— Steve Bramucci, Managing Editor, Uproxx Life

PAST RESULTS:

BLT Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Mac & Cheese Showdown — 1) Vince 2) (tie) Zach, Steve
Taco Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Winter Stew Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince
Date Night Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Pasta Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Hot Beef Challenge — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve

CURRENT SCORE:

We’re giving three points to the winner and one to second place for each round. As it stands, the score is:

ZACH: 13
STEVE: 8
VINCE: 8


ZACH’S OYSTER BISQUE

The bisque is one of those soups that sounds intimidating. Hell, it tastes intimidating. I never really got “it” until I spent a couple weeks driving the entire perimeter of France a few years back. As I meandered through Bordeaux along the Bay of Biscay, I got in the habit of sampling the plate du jour every day. And invariably that came with a bowl of the local chef or maman’s bisque — which was always fortified with plenty of brandy and the morning’s catch. Each bowl had a personality. There’s that briny blend of tomato, saffron, cream, and stock all creating this light and refreshing soup that nourishes and delights. It’s a classic dish that lives and dies by the little tweaks the chef uses to make it his or her own personal masterpiece in a bowl.

On my trip, I studied and talked and came away with a path towards making my own pot of bisque at home. This is that recipe.

The Shellfish
I wasn’t in the mood to kill a lobster today. So I killed some oysters instead. Funny how that works. Anyway, I grabbed a dozen Fine de Claire’s that came in this morning from Marennes, France. What you want to do here is shuck them carefully. It’s imperative that you reserve as much of the oyster liquor as possible for the soup.

So I set up a sieve over a shallow bowl and put on my oyster shuckin’ gloves and get to work.

Once my oysters are shucked, I set aside. I restrain the oyster liquor two more times to assure that any little bits of calcium shell are removed and set that aside.

My first big tweak is the fun part. Guess who got a new toy everybody!? I bust out my portable smoker, load it up with hickory shavings, and pump a small Tupperware full of smoke and quickly snap on the airtight lid. I let the oysters sit in the smoke while I make my bisque.

The Bisque

The cornerstone of any great bisque is the mirepoix base. I’m using fresh carrots, white celery, and a yellow onion. I dice them fairly rustically since this is all getting blended later. I also crush a couple cloves of garlic.

I heat up my small stock pot with a big knob of unsalted French butter #StayingOnBrand. Once that’s melted, I add my mirepoix ingredients. It’s okay to add the garlic at the same time here, we’re creating a base after all.

Once the mirepoix has turned soft and translucent, but not started to brown — so ten-ish minutes — I add a couple tablespoons of tomato paste. And then another one my tweaks is a good heaping teaspoon of harissa paste. I stir that into the mirepoix, letting a little fond form on the bottom of the pot.

Next, comes in one four cups of really good chicken stock which I use to bring up all that nice fond. Then I add in one cup of Brandy, the oyster liquor, bay leaves, and several sprigs of flat leaf parsley and thyme.

The last touch I add is a few strings of golden saffron I picked up at a spice market in the Kasbah in Tangier. It’s the best saffron I’ve ever tasted or used. I let that simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the veg in the mirepoix is fall-apart-tender.

This is the most onerous part of the recipe — you have to strain the soup through a sieve several times. After the first strain, I remove the stalks and stems from the fresh herbs. I put the broth back on the stove and use an emulsion mixer to blend the mirepoix into the soup, thickening it. Traditionally rice is used to thicken a bisque, but I find that the starch takes away from the depth of the soup. Blend thoroughly. Once you have what looks like zero bits of mirepoix left, run through the sieve again, and again, and again. You’re left with a beautifully silky soup.

Lastly, add in a cup of heavy cream. I used 32 percent fat. I slowly pour the cream in as the emulsion mixer runs on a low setting. This aerates the cream a bit as it emulsifies into the soup making it a bisque. This is how the bisque becomes a light and effervescent delight instead of a heavy creamy soup.

The Assembly

I pop open my oysters near the kitchen window so the smoke won’t stink up the place. I gently place four oysters at the bottom of my bowl. This is crucial, make sure that the soup is just brought to the boil before you ladle it on the oysters. If the soup is at 212F, it will lightly poach the oysters in the bowl. This just firms them up and causes the lips of the oyster to just start to curl.

Next, I add some chopped chives in the middle of the bowl. And I finish the whole thing off with a few drops nice lemon olive oil* I made.

Overall, the oysters are perfectly cooked. There’s no shitty seafood taste. They taste like oysters are meant too with a slight firmness masked in a hint of hickory smoke. The bisque itself is a delight. It’s insanely silky and light with the perfect hint of brine in the background that’s mellowed by the brandy. And the lemon oil just ties the whole bowl together.

*You just put some lemon rinds and chopped green onion in with extra virgin olive oil and heat up to 150F for 30 minutes in a sous vide. Let cool. Done

VINCE ON ZACH’S DISH

Sweet Jesus, a dish you learned traveling the perimeter of France sampling the stews of simple fisherman? That has to be the most Zach intro ever, right? With each installment Zach sets the Zach bar even Zachier. I don’t know what’s better, that intro, or the fact that we started with “don’t be intimidated by this dish” and proceeded to make a soup that you had to strain seven times underneath a Marseillese chandelier while smoking oysters using the finest Zanzibarian hardwood for a soup finished with a lemon oil steeped for exactly 15 hours and 17 minutes in a Tibetan sherpa’s panties.

That being said, I would happily eat the shit out of this, preferably while listening the sonorous throat singing of the panty sherpa and wiping bisque drops from my pathetic facial hair. It looks delicious. I love oysters. And if I can’t have them raw, cooked as gently as possible is the next best thing. I suppose smoked and then put in a bisque fits that bill (still probably not as good as raw, but…). I guess my only real criticism here is that it’s a soup. Even the best soup in the world I eventually get tired of after a small bowl. There’s just not enough textural contrast, I start to feel like I’m in a nursing home. And this seems incredibly labor intensive for an appetizer. But as long as you’re the one doing the labor…

STEVE ON ZACH’S DISH

Dammmmmn! That intro chewed through more scenery than Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate. I love bisque. Sense memory-wise, it’s on my top five. But this dish backed you into two major conundrums:

  1. Can oyster bisque ever beat lobster or crab bisque?
  2. Can smoked/poached oysters ever beat raw oysters?

My answer for both is “no.” But I haven’t tried this bisque and would be happy to. Perhaps after two more strainings. Maybe once through a cheesecloth and once through the ashes of Auguste Escoffier?

Hey, you went high technique on this one and I’m not going to slight you too much for that. I like fine dining technique, Would eat, but would wonder if I’d missed out on raw oysters and lobster or crab bisque.


VINCE’S FIDEOS WITH CLAMS, SHRIMP, AND MUSSELS

I had to make some tough decisions for this shellfish challenge. If you asked me what my favorite shellfish is, I’d probably say oysters or lobster, but I only really like oysters raw (preferably shucking them straight from the bag and throwing the shells in the bushes in Tomales Bay), and most of the best ways to eat lobster aren’t super interesting to read about or challenging to cook (poach it and dunk it in butter, poach it, dunk it in butter and then put it in a lobster roll, etc, zzzz…). The first shellfish dish that actually requires cooking that came to mind was: paella. And what’s an interesting twist on paella? Fideos, which is basically paella with toasted broken angel hair noodles instead of rice. (Also I had some fancy saffron that I bought from a spice market laying around that I wanted to use).

Then I thought, how do I fancy up fideos? Why not try it with fresh noodles instead of the dry stuff? Or, to put it another way: Yes, I shoehorned fresh pasta into another challenge, which is very #onbrand for me. I REGRET NOTHING! Suck these flour-covered jeans!

The great thing about fideos is that, unlike paella, you don’t have to bake it for 20 or 30 minutes and risk nuking all your nice seafood, and, rather than having to cook parts of it separately and risk wasting some of that beautiful clam and mussel juice, it all goes into the same sauce. Also, what’s the best part of paella? Probably the crusty part of the rice from the bottom of the pan. With fideos, you start with toasted noodles, so you get that crunchy, crusty, toasty flavor in every bite, and without having to risk overreducing the sauce. Not only that, unlike anything Zach has ever cooked, it’s pretty simple. Other than deveining the shrimp and chopping the chives at the very end, I could’ve made the whole thing without a knife.

The Noodles

We’ve been through my homemade noodle recipe before so I won’t rehash it again here, but the basics are three eggs, three yolks, salt, and two cups of fine semolina. I didn’t change anything for this dish (I used the thinnest setting, since we’re going for broken angel hair here). Once that’s done, you end up with nice fresh noodles, which is actually an extra challenge in this case, because we need the noodles to be dry. Luckily, as I discovered (I’d actually never attempted this before), you can just toast fresh noodles the same way you would dry ones, it just takes a few minutes longer. I just stuck them on a baking sheet and put them in the oven at 375. Once the fresh noodles dry, you can break them and toast them just like you would dry angel hair from a box. And actually, you have a little more margin for error this way. The goal was to get a mottled, golden brown-edging-towards-chestnut on the edges.

My kitchen already smelled amazing at this point and I hadn’t even started the garlic.

The Shellfish

A handful each of littleneck clams, black mussels, and wild caught shrimp. Wash your clams and mussels and leave them in water for 5-10 minutes to purge any excess sand, devein your shrimp, and you’re good to go (I like to do it the Japanese way where you clean the shrimp with a little potato starch, which may or may not actually do anything but is easy and feels like it does).

To cook the shrimp, I started with a two cups of half and half. I used half and half instead of the traditional heavy cream, because I was already using rich egg noodles instead of the dry stuff and I didn’t want it to be overkill. I started the half-and-half on the stove with about a teaspoon of saffron threads and some salt to taste. I whisked it together and got it right to a low simmer, then threw in the shrimp and turned off the burner. Don’t want no overcooked shrimp.

To cook the clams and mussels, I started with a cold pan with about a quarter cup of extra virgin olive oil and 10 whole cloves of garlic (or 11 if two of the cloves are small).

I turned that burner on low and stirred periodically, slowly, slooowly softening the garlic, then smashing it with my wooden spoon thingy, then getting it just to a light golden.

Now everything has that toasted, golden smell. Mmm, you could smell this kitchen for blocks.

Once the garlic was cooked, I added the clams and mussels, got them coated in the oil/garlic mixture, and added about a cup of white wine — a nice sauvie B, just the way your mother likes it — and the toasted noodles. Then I covered the pan and brought it up to steaming temp until the mussels and clams popped open (like your mom). The mussels actually cooked a lot faster so I had to pull them out and then finish steaming open the clams before adding the mussels back in. There’s nothing more disappointing than an overcooked, rubbery mussel, except maybe the ultimate meaninglessness of existence.

Putting It All Together

As soon as the clams and mussels were open (and the noodles softened — oh man, how much better is a fresh noodle cooked in oil, wine, garlic, and clam/mussel juice than one cooked in water?) I poured the cream/saffron/shrimp mixture over it and mixed it all together. Then I poured all of that into my cast iron pan (I don’t own paella pans, sadly, but the ol’ Lodge seemed to do the trick just fine), and as much as possible tried to make sure the clams and mussels were open side down, and the shrimp were on the top. I stuck the cast iron under a hot broiler for 3-5 minutes — just enough to give it a finishing scorch and finish off the shrimp, you don’t need to bake this like paella.

Once that was done, I finished it off with some chopped chives in homage to my all-time favorite food guy, Jacques Pepin, who loves chives more than his own children.

It was extremely good (and yes, Steve, I added some shredded Parmesan after the first bite). It’s really the perfect combination of so many good things. It has that pasta and clam flavor of linguini and clams. It has the toastiness of a nice mussels and broth and bread dish or a clams casino, with the toasted noodles giving you that toasty bread flavor. It has the saffrony ocean flavor and crunch of a paella. And the best part is, it wasn’t really that hard to make. Just a couple simply-cooked things combined. Yeah, dude.

ZACH ON VINCE’S DISH

No joke, I said to Bramucci last week “how much you wanna bet Mancini makes linguine and clams or some variation?” Welp… You owe me a coke, Bramucci.

Okay, okay. I think this is a solid plate. But, seriously, we could have a fucking dessert challenge and I’d wager Vince would freeze some spaghetti and smother it in raspberry sauce instead of Sunday gravy. Overall, this dish looks solid enough with great colors and presentation. Maybe it’s a little heavy on the garlic and overcooked on the shellfish, if I let my inner Padma come out of her shell. Otherwise, a solid showing from Mancini. Although he should lose a point for making pasta…AGAIN.

STEVE ON VINCE’S DISH

This should have been your V-Day/date/sex dish, because it’s a stylistic winner and seductive as shit. But remember when we made paella with Amar Santana? I realized something right then: I love mussels, but I don’t like mussels in a starch. Because there’s just always a shell and it always gets lodged between my molars and hurts like bloody hell. Now I’m not saying you blistered those shells in the broiler and they popped, but… maybe they did? Probably, right? Probably shattered shell in every bite, y’know?

I sure hope so, because it’s the most colorful dish you’ve done and if you end up taking this thing it’ll be the first win for you where I don’t secretly slack Zach, “Man, the commenters favor Vince so damn hard. It’s an uphill battle to beat him!”


STEVE’S LANGOSTINO & GRITS WITH STONE FRUIT

We come up with these challenges literally the same day as the previous article launches. Which means that we know what we’re doing all month — there’s time to scheme and plot and bicker about pasta water. During that span, I spoke to Jeremiah Tower about how his favorite dish on earth is an a5 prawn, pan cooked in garlic and white wine. I too love a5 prawns. And I had a feeling that my philistine cohorts wouldn’t know where to order head-on shrimp.

That was my angle. Then, at some point, after vowing to show these motherfuckers what I can do without the massive crutches of cheese and Italian comfort food, I landed on “shrimp and cheese grits” or “langostino and polenta” depending on which side of my ancestry you favor. HYBRID! MASHUP! REMIX!

In the midst of all this, I realized how incredibly tricky this challenge actually is, because if I really wanted to win I would just cook a whole crab with garlic butter and be done with it. Is there anything we made that beats crab boil? I doubt it.

All about that base…

My culinary life is straightforward. I spend 45% of my time figuring out how to put cheese in things and 45% figuring out how to lighten my dishes to keep them from being over-cheesed. This month was no different.

The other 10%? I obsess over stock.

A few weeks back, I did a Facebook live where a chef made us $100 avocado toast to mock the Australian billionaire who said avocado toast was why millennials don’t own homes (rather than unsustainable debt structuring created by the reckless wealth creation of baby boomers in the 80s and 90s). The chef used a pound of butter-poached lobster in his insanely extravagant toast and was just about to throw away the lobster husks and poaching solution when I rescued them.

That’s just the multitude-containing sort of guy I am: Eating toast with gold flake on it one minute, then whisking used lobster bodies away in a to-go box the next.

Between the lobster bodies from the shoot, my own hobby of lobster diving, and the fact that I take lobster shells home from fancy tastings on the regular, my lobster stock game is on point. I don’t add any fish to it at all — it’s the real deal. And this month, I embedded it in everything. Starting with a modified mirepoix of celery, onion, and serrano peppers. Looks good right?

Going “full Southern”

Everyone who cooks — me, Vince, and Zach very much included — thinks they can straight nail southern food. Food is already a world where just about everyone thinks they’re an authority and southern flavors are the nadir of that annoying habit. Watch Top Chef sometime for how common it is for someone to claim “soul food” as a specialty.

  1. It’s bullshit. Southern food can be just as nuanced as any other tradition.
  2. I 100% fell victim to it. I have a great story here about being a 19-year-old college dropout living on the floor of a barber shop in the French Quarter, sweeping hair to make space for my bedroll every night, and learning how to cook at the historic Praline Connection, but I’ll spare you.

Anyway, this whole dish was wavering on polenta or grits and I decided to rub some bacon with coffee grounds and go all southern. Did I waver later? You’d better believe it, but the two traditions work well together.

Keeping things gritty
I cooked my grits in lobster stock and milk. Cooking polenta in stock is very Italian, cooking it in milk is very southern. Trying to do both at once is very Bramucci.

I added my modified mirepoix and let the whole thing firm up a little — more like you would in the homeland. I later added the crumbled coffee bacon.

Peak cheese

So… two types of sharp cheddar, some parm, and Old Amsterdam’s aged gouda. Have we gone overboard? Yes. Steve with cheese = Vince with pasta. I’m off cheese for the whole summer though.* Starting…. NOW!

*Clarification: Not off cheese for the whole summer in real life. Just in our cooking competitions. Forget being off cheese in real life.

What was the challenge again?

Oh yeah! Shellfish! So I brought the a5, head-on prawns like a boss. These take some getting. I cooked them Jeremiah Tower style: garlic, white wine, and butter. If you can mess these up, you’re a monster.

I wanted to be all dramatic and just plate those beautiful bastards as is, but the aforementioned pregnant girlfriend wasn’t fully hyped on cracking open a giant prawn over her grits. So I popped them open and deveined and took the meat out.

Still, the heads were not about to go to waste…

The final plate

The grits were polenta thick (and I used rough-cut yellow corn grits, so they were literally polenta). I put them in a ring mold and let them set for a few minutes. I piled them up with langostino meat and some herbs.

Around my ring mold, I arranged finely sliced nectarine. Again, I felt the need to lighten and now that I was in Italian-Southern hybrid world, I figured that stone fruit fit with both. Also, I like putting “stone fruit” in the title of dishes because I’m a trendy hipster from 2007. I sauced the other side of the mold with the white wine-garlicy prawn pan drippings.

I cut some chives and parsley on top and then placed those beautiful heads back on the plate. You suck out the heads. That’s the key. That’s the dish. And — in classic shellfish fashion — the best bite of the whole thing was sucking those brains. But the rest was pretty damn good too. There was nice spice from the serranos, a good sharp cheese hit, and lots of lobster/langostino flavor.

VINCE ON STEVE’S

I would eat this, but only if I didn’t have to listen to you apologize for it the whole time. The performer never acknowledges mistakes while onstage! Buck up, Steve! It’s not so bad! Grits are good! Shrimp are good! Nectarines are good! All of those things together is… not bad, I suppose?

I mean, you couldn’t even decide whether to garnish with chives or parsley so you just used both, which is classic Steve. But, like, at least you didn’t sneak any chestnuts or jolly ranchers in there. I still don’t understand why you thought not cracking open shrimp shells meant you had to shred the shrimp meat itself (who shreds shrimp?!), but… well, you know you did a bad thing. There’s no need to rehash it all again. Besides, I don’t want to damage your already delicate constitution. Sometimes I worry the next one of these is going to be a suicide note.

ZACH ON STEVE’S

Oh, Stephano… Grits are such a delicate dish to execute well. Everything looks either overthought (bacon) or underthought (those poor Langostines). My inner Collicho thinks that I’d really love to see you strip this dish down to its bare essentials and cook that. We know your heart is in the right place, but this is hashtag Steve hard on the overwrought brand. Where to start? I guess the biggest crime is the diced up shrimp tail on the grits. Let’s those bad boys shine and keep ’em in one piece. And the peach just feels out of place. I’m not saying it can’t work, but it just leaves me thinking why more than anything else.

I dunno, dude. Better luck next time?

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