03 September 2013

Food Lab 25: Smoked Mollusks

We knew it had to happen sooner or later. And it's not like we haven't had previews: the bourbon eggs, attempts to make cheese, homemade rice paper, lobster thermidor, gluten-free pizza crust...I could go on. But this is the first time that the main lab idea was a total #FAIL.

The day started so well. Mad Kitchen Scientist, Chef Spouse and I gathered at the Maine Avenue Fish Market to stock up. We bought big and little clams, mussels, oysters, head-on shrimp, crawfish, some octopus and a piece of salmon for The Empress and Chef Spouse, who's not huge on bivalves.

Upon arriving back, the first thing we did was put the mussels in a brine, consisting of:

4 qt water
1/2 c kosher salt
1/4 c brown sugar
Bay leaves
Dried hot peppers
1 dozen allspice berries
Fennel seed
Mix of peppercorns

Looks promising (and pretty), doesn't it?  Just you wait....

Chef Spouse then valiantly started opening the oysters, even though he'd never done it before and we had no oyster knife. It did not go well, to the point that, after destroying the shell on one, semi-successfully opening two more, and determining that there was no way to open the rest without the right tools, he left to purchase an oyster knife. While he was gone, the IAs arrived. Turns out, Papa IA is a man of hidden talents, including the fact that he worked as an oyster shucker at one point. Once Chef Spouse had the right tool and a good coach, he dispatched the rest of the oysters in quick order, and we proceeded to slurp them all down poste haste.

In the meantime, the octopus went into a marinade of:

Olive oil
Lemon juice
Hot peppers
Chopped fresh rosemary
Chopped fresh sage

And Mad Kitchen Scientist fired up the Big Green Egg.

Next we par-boiled the crawfish in a simple Old Bay and salt mix, since we were planning to smoke them. Why did we par-boil them first? Visions of still-live crawfish scattering the second they hit the grate in the smoker.

Then it was out of the brine for the mussels, out of the pot for some of the crawfish, and onto a slow smoke heat (around 225) until the mussels opened up, signaling that they were - or should have been - ready to eat.

Here's the thing. I've had smoked mussels before. I know it's possible. But it wasn't this weekend. Instead of forming into tasty, juicy little pockets of chewy deliciousness, the mussels were rigid and nearly impossible to pry fully open and, when we did, there were two flat bits of flesh against the inside of each shell that were kind of the consistency of pate. They didn't taste bad, exactly, and you could taste the smoke, but they were profoundly disappointing. The crawfish fared a little better, although you couldn't really taste any smokiness.

After that, we cranked up the heat in the Egg (I still think it needs a name), and put together a sort of clam bake in Mad Kitchen Scientist's new 9 qt cast iron dutch oven. It included:

3/4 L white wine
2 fennel bulbs, quartered
1 onion, chopped in eighths
Head on shrimp
2 red and 2 yellow tomatoes, also in eighths
6 ears corn halved
all 3 dozen clams

Once again, looks pretty good, right? Oh my, were we wrong.

So we kept the Egg closer to 400, smoked until the clams started to open, then popped the lid on to steam briefly.

The clams were not terrible. They were a little tough, but not inedible, and again, you could taste the smoke. The shrimp overcooked to the point that they fell apart. I couldn't eat the corn - banged one of my teeth slightly loose in an accident earlier this summer, and it's still not 100% - but the tomatoes, onions, and fennel were not great, either.

Thank goodness we had those oysters, that octopus, which we grilled, and salmon, which we also grilled, or we would've had nothing to eat but the cheese and olives The Executive Committee had put out for us.

So our first disaster. Doing a little additional research now, I realize we left out the key step with the mussels: that they needed to be briefly boiled and de-shelled THEN smoked. Same thing with the clams. The shrimp should have also been removed from their shells and dry-smoked, preferably after being treated to a rub or marinade of some sort. To paraphrase The Wedding Singer, this is information I would have found useful YESTERDAY. Fortunately, we had plenty of champagne, sparkling wine, and white wine to console ourselves with.