Sometimes foraging, fishing and clamming at the seaside only results in a few of anything – clams, crabs, fish, etc. What to do? Make a mixed seafood meal.
This is what happened last weekend on our trip to Bodega Bay. It was tough sledding all day long, and we kept almost getting skunked: Josh could have caught a couple crabs. We could have kept a couple mud shrimp, a couple bent-nosed clams, a couple cockles.
As it was we decided only to keep eight large mussels he’d found on rocks in a tidepool. Eight mussels for a day’s work.
My thought as we drove home was to combine these mussels with other seafood into a frutti di mare risotto. Other options could have been a cioppino or seafood stew, a pasta sauce or a seafood salad.
What hit me then was the realization that this is probably how many of these dishes were invented: Dregs from a fisherman’s net, unsold items from the morning fishmarket, a bad day foraging.
From a forager’s point of view, it requires a certain mindset to screw up the courage to keep, say, three cockles or two smallish crabs and move on. We are so programmed toward plenty that scarcity triggers an “Aw, screw it!” response causing us — or at least me — to release whatever few specimens of deliciousness back to the wild and head to the store.
And mind you, this is not just an ocean thing. Hunters out there, you ever come home with one squirrel, one duck or a lone quail? For mushroomers it may be just a handful of mediocre edibles.
At any rate, this is what I did last weekend. By the time the mixed seafood dish had gelled in my head, the day was almost done and Josh was picking mussels. So the next morning I went to the Sacramento farmer’s market and bought some tiny bay shrimp and two pounds of little Manila clams.
I’ve made a lot of seafood risottos over the years. A few were good. Most, however, I remember as overly fishy and generally, well, thin. They tend to lack that umami thwack! you get from a red meat or cheese risotto.
And then there’s the rice. I know enough to make risotto with short-grain rice: Long-grain rice lacks amylopectin, a particular starch you need to get that creamy consistency. For most of my life, I’d just bought whatever short-grain was cheapest and called it a day. Recently I’d begun buying real carnaroli rice, which you can get online from Scott over at Sausage Debauchery.
But then I read in Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Grains and Greens that while carnaroli is cheaper and works perfectly well in a seafood risotto, the top-of-the-line rice is a variety called Vialone Nano, which is smaller and rounder than most other risotto rices. It absorbs more water than most risotto rices and makes the perfect Venetian-style risotto, which is loose, almost soupy. If you live near Sacramento, Corti Bros. has it in stock.
Armed with a top-of-the-line rice, I needed a top-of-the-line broth. I know a lot of writers say you can freeze a fish or seafood broth, but unless you have a freezer that will hold below -10 F or colder, forget it. Why? Because even the small amounts of fat that you get from a fish broth will go rancid.
Think about it: A cow lives in our world, and its body temperature is about 101 F. Dead and cut up into meat, beef fat held in a home freezer (typically 0 degrees Fahrenheit) is 101 degrees colder than it was while the beast was alive. Now think about a rock cod or black seabass, two fish often used for fish stock. They tend to live water that’s about 40 F. So even in a freezer, the difference between the live critter and the frozen meat — or broth – is just 40 degrees. This makes a huge difference.
The answer to this problem is to make fish stock fresh when you need it. Fortunately it doesn’t take hours like a meat stock, and is easy when you use shellfish, such as clams and mussels. Put a little water in a stockpot, add some finely chopped veggies and seasonings, then dump in the live shellfish.
If you are using different shellfish, they will need to go in at different times. The mussels Josh collected were far larger than the Manila clams, so they went in 3 minutes before the clams, which needed only 2 minutes to open in the boiling water. Once the shellfish open, they release a delicious salty brine that makes this quick broth magic.
Strain it through a fine-mesh sieve and you are good to go. Keep it warm in another pot. Don’t let it boil again.
If you’ve never made a proper risotto, it is hard to describe how to make it perfectly. Risotto is temperamental and needy, and you must cater to its desires or it will spoil on you.
Start with a tablespoon or two of butter and saute finely chopped shallots until they think about browning — you do not want them brown, but almost brown. See what I mean about the difficulty in words here? Add a cup of rice for 2-4 people (depending on whether this is dinner or just a side dish) and saute it, too, stirring often, until you see brown marks on the bottom of the pot.
Add a cup of white wine that is at least room temperature. Do not add cold wine or it will shock the rice. Shocked rice becomes sullen and difficult to coax out its goodness. Let this simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the wine is almost all absorbed — not totally absorbed, and for God’s sake you do not want it to stick to the bottom of the pot.
Now add about a cup of the broth, and stir it in well. You should not need salt; you’ll get enough from the clam broth. Stirring a risotto is a Zen-like thing: Constant, endless circling, sometimes cutting through the rice, sometimes whipping little whirlpools though its center, or eddies on the sides — but always with a wooden spoon.
You will hear when the rice wants more water. The pitch of the simmer will rise, and you will hear the faintest hint of a sizzle, and sizzling is bad in risotto. Add another cup and repeat.
Do this through a total of five cups, one of wine, four of broth. In the final cup, add another tablespoon of butter and all the shellfish, which you have removed from their shells.
Serve immediately. Risotto’s beauty is in the creamy sauce that has no cream, the silken feeling it leaves on your tongue and the toothsome surprise of the rice, which retains its integrity despite being stirred into submission for more than 20 minutes.
Eating a good risotto is like wrapping yourself in a warm blanket. Eating this risotto is like wrapping yourself in a warm blanket at the beach, with a fire in front of you, your friends around you, and the stars above.
This is a classic frutti di mare risotto, a mixed seafood risotto made with freshly made clam broth. It is the essence of the seaside, and can be made with any number of shellfish. I use Manila clams, which you can get small, mussels and either tiny bay shrimp or the boreal pink shrimp that live off both coasts of Canada. You also could use bay scallops, crayfish, bits of crab or lobster, limpets, periwinkles or really any other shellfish you feel like using.
The keys to this risotto are a perfectly fresh broth, great seafood and the proper rice. I follow the Italian example and use Vialone Nano Risotto Rice with this recipe. It is the traditional rice to use with a seafood risotto, and it is spectacular: tiny, stubby grains that seem to have twice as much creamy starch as a typical carnaroli risotto rice. Must you buy Vialone Nano? No, but the dish won’t be as good. What you must do is use a short-grained rice — long grained rice will not work here. Trust me.
Serves 4 as a side dish or appetizer course.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 40 minutes
- 1 heaping cup Vialone Nano Risotto Rice, or other risotto rice
- 1 cup white wine
- 2 pounds[/amount] small Manila clams
- 1/2 pound mussels
- 1/4 pound tiny bay or pink shrimp
- 1 finely chopped shallot
- 2 finely chopped garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 chopped carrots
- 2 chopped celery stalks
- 1/2 onion, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 2 bay leaves
- Make the broth. In a large stockpot, pour in 8 cups of water, the onion, carrot, celery, thyme, coriander, fennel and bay leaves and bring to a boil.
- Add the mussels and cover the pot. Wait 3 minutes, then add the clams — if they are small. If the clams are about the same size as the mussels, add them at the same time. But you really want tiny clams here…
- Boil this hard for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat but do not uncover. Wait 3 more minutes. Uncover and pour through a colander into another large pot — this liquid is your cooking broth.
- Let the contents of the colander cool while you pour the broth through a fine-meshed sieve into another pot. Put that pot on the stove on low heat. Do not let it simmer. You want it to just steam.
- Meanwhile, pick out all the meat from the mussels and clams and put in a bowl. Add the shrimp to the bowl and set aside.
- Get a pot for the risotto and put half the butter in. Turn the heat to medium-high.
- When the butter stops frothing add the shallot and saute for 2 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for another minute. Add the rice and stir to combine. Let this cook, stirring constantly, for a minute.
- Pour in the white wine and stir. Stir almost constantly until the wine is almost absorbed. You never want the rice to stick on the bottom, and you want the rice to be moving — this is what makes a proper risotto.
- When the wine is nearly gone, add about a cup of the broth and repeat the process. You will need about 5 cups of broth total before the rice gets to the proper consistency, which is al dente but totally surrounded in creamy sauce. Constantly moving the risotto makes the rice slough off starch, which emulsifies the broth and makes a lovely sauce.
- When you get to the last cup of broth, toss in the seafood and the remaining butter.
- Serve in bowls with spoons. This is supposed to be a loose risotto. As for a wine, I recommend a Vermentino, Sancerre or Chenin Blanc — or for a change, some dry sherry.