All shellfish should be bought fresh and clean. Molluscs — mussels and oysters among them — are bought live. Look for tightly closed shells which open as they are cooked.
Prawns, crabs and lobsters are crustaceans. They are usually sold boiled before you buy them.
Clams Serve raw — or you can cook them like mussels. Clam chowder is a classic American dish. They are also good in a tomato sauce with spaghetti.
Cockles A symbol of London life, like a trip to Southend or a visit to the music hall. You will usually buy them shelled and cooked. Serve them with vinegar and brown bread and butter.
Crab Usually bought pre-cooked — boiled by the fishmonger. He will usually’dress’ it for you — removing the white meat from the claws and the brown meat from the shell. If you have a live crab, put it in a pan of cold water, bring it up to the boil and cook for 15-20 minutes. Add a sliced onion, bayleaf and seasoning.
Serve crab with a salad and mayonnaise or as a savoury souffle. When preparing remove inedible parts (dead men’s fingers).
Lobster As with crab, it is far easier to buy a lobster which has been boiled. Cooking the lobster isn’t a job for the squeamish as it must be cooked alive. Tie the tail in the curled position to the body and then plunge headfirst into boiling water. Boil for 15-20 minutes according to the size. Ensure that all inedible parts (dead men’s fingers) are removed.
Mussels Molluscs with blue-black shells, always sold live. Scrub them thoroughly first, discarding any which are part-open. Remove any barnacles and cut away the seaweed-like beard.
Rinse thoroughly, then cook, often in wine, sliced onion and herbs. If any mussels are still closed after cooking, throw them away.
Oysters An expensive food now, mostly eaten in restaurants, oysters used to be a cheap and common dish until, in the middle of the nineteenth century, oyster beds dried out or became polluted. After that, good oysters became exclusively the province of those who could afford them.
British oysters, from Whitstable, Cornwall and other areas, are still regarded as the best in the world. Prepare them as you would mussels: scrub well. Open and serve raw on the half-shells, with slices of brown bread, butter, lemon wedges and a sprinkling of cayenne pepper.
Prawns and shrimps Usually sold cooked, they are available all the year round fresh in their shells, shelled or canned. Live, they are brownish in colour. Put them into a pan of boiling water for about 5 minutes (15-20 for Dublin Bay prawns–scampi). To shell, hold between your finger and thumb and pull off the tail
shell first; then twist off the head. Peel away the rest of the shell. Prawns and shrimps make delicious hors d’oeuvres.
Scallops Most often bought, opened, on the half-shell, fresh or frozen. Look for a bright orange roe surrounded by plump, creamy-white flesh. Clean them carefully, cutting away any beard or intestinal threads. Ease them from the half-shells, slice the white parts, and poach in dry white wine for about ten minutes. Add the orange coral after five minutes. Take them out and keep warm; use the cooking liquid as the base for a white sauce.
The white parts are also good sauteed in butter — rich but very delicious.
Whelks and winkles Traditional London treats. They are almost always sold from market stalls, cooked and cold, on little dishes with seasoning in the form of rough malt vinegar, salt and pepper. You need a pin to prise the winkles out of their shells. If you are lucky, you may be served sliced brown bread, to mop up the juices.