How To Cook Bivalves, The Life-Affirming Pain In The AssS

Listen. Life is hard. You're tired all the time, you're overworked and underpaid, you never have enough time for anything and no one loves you and your hair, seriously, what are you even going for with that look, because it is not working. Most evenings, it's all you can do to doze off into a bowl of cereal and hope to absorb some caloric energy through osmosis in the nine minutes between the time you get home and the time the alarm clock sends you back out again. And then some internet asshole is all, Hey yeah! Buy some stupid clams and mussels and put effort into sustaining their lives and clean them and debeard them and cook them to death and eat them, because that's not at all a big, metaphorically horrifying waste of time just like everything else! and you literally cannot imagine how or why that would be better than just closing your eyes and leaping right the hell into the Grand Canyon.

Because, truthfully, cooking bivalves is annoying. Or, well, the cooking part is a snap (you crowd them together and make them hot, they die, and then you eat them, just like the system does to us) but everything before that—finding them, selecting them, keeping them alive until you're ready to cook them, cleaning them, debearding them holy shit debearding them, this is the most tedious and infuriating thing anyone has ever done—is a fucking ordeal. It's a commitment. Now I have purchased these stupid insensate filter-feeding snotballs encased in fucking stone envelopes, and I must care for them like that is not ridiculous or like they even give a shit, and ugh I have to cook and eat them within the next several hours or they will have been as big a waste of money as I am of the spark of life.

Well, look, goddammit. Claim some time to slow down and do the work of preparing a fresh, vibrant, tasty, laborious, rewarding meal for yourself. Cling to this time, with your jagged fingernails, as a symbol of your ownership of your own friggin' life. Defend it! Snarl at your goddamn smartphone when it rings! By God, live, damn you, if only for these few hours! Take on the chore of finding, buying, preserving, preparing, and cooking a bunch of dumb bivalves, and exalt in its annoyances and tedium, for they are proof that you are alive and have made a choice for yourself!


The first thing to do is acquire fresh bivalves. Clams and mussels, specifically. Now, the trick here, as with soft-shell crabs and many other seafoods, is that your clams and mussels must be purchased alive, and kept alive until you cook them, if you intend to eat them and weren't, say, searching for something bad-smelling to toss into the garbage, which, I mean, why would you even do that, Christ. There are two reasons your bivalves must be alive when you cook them: first, bivalves decay very quickly after death, rendering them too stinky and nasty for eating; second, if your bivalves are dead when you buy them, you will have no way of knowing what exactly killed them—and therefore whether what killed them will eventually invade your brain and cause you to build a flying saucer on the roof of your home, so that it can return to its home planet. (You're meant to understand that this is a bad thing, even though, on the whole, flying saucers are pretty cool. Let's agree that there's no oxygen on the brain-parasite's home planet, OK?)

You can improve your odds of getting living, healthy clams and mussels by purchasing them from a fishmonger or seafood counter where the clerk has to transfer them from a bed of ice into a bag by hand, rather than buying them in those cute prepackaged net-bags that have been sitting on shaved ice all day at the supermarket. The problem with the prepackaged bags is that, since the clams (or mussels) are crammed in there tightly, inspecting them individually for signs of life (we'll get to that in a minute) is impractical; there's no way of knowing how many of them might be dead, and it's entirely possible that you could get all the way home and begin cleaning them for cooking, only to discover that most of them have already kicked off, and then instead of making dinner you have to stage a sad little funeral for all the dead bivalves, even though you never even knew them, and what are you going to say for a eulogy, this is ridiculous.

(If the prepackaged bags of clams and mussels are your only option, you can increase your odds of getting enough living bivalves to cook with by buying an extra bag of each. Yes, you're spending more money, and yeah, there's a decent chance you'll end up with wayyyy more clams and mussels than you really need, but on the other hand, [door slamming] [tires screeching].)

Now that you've purchased your clams and mussels (get enough for each eventual diner to eat, say, five or six of each—plus enough extra to maintain those numbers if a bunch of them die before you can cook them), you need to transport your bivalves home. This seems like it ought to be pretty simple, right? Presumably you mastered the use of your automobile or bicycle or legs or taxi-flagging thumb technique at some point before you even went out to buy clams and mussels in the first place. The trick is getting home before your bivalves die.

Have the seafood counter dude shovel some ice into the bag with your clams and mussels, leave the neck of the bag open a little bit to allow some air to go in and out, and travel directly home. If you stop to, say, watch an entire revival screening of Sátántangó at the hip cinema-and-drafthouse along the way, your bivalves will die and stink and—Jesus, between that and the movie, you won't even make it home without knifing yourself.

So you've got your clams and mussels home, and—speaking of things that will make you want to knife yourself—it's time to clean your bivalves. This is some miserable, dire, purgatorial shit right here. The clams are relatively easy: Stick each one (each fucking one) under a cold tap for a few seconds and scrub it with a dishwashing brush—or, screw it, just kinda wipe it all over with your fingers—to wash off any sand or grit or slime on the shell, then dump it in a big bowl or pot with some ice in it. That oughtta take, what, not more than 10 or 15 weeks, right?

The mussels... well, look. Maybe you should just put some fish sticks in the microwave. Just—just put some fish sticks in the microwave, and dip them in an open can of lukewarm tomato soup, and chew them in the dark, and doze for two hours before getting back to being too busy for everything, and accept that no one will never use the phrase "radiant joy" to describe you or any part of your miserable existence, OK? No? Not ready to give up yet? OK. In that case, clean and debeard your fucking mussels! Under that same cold tap, grip the damn stupid mussel-beard like it is the flapping tail-end of Life and the mussel is devouring it before your very eyes, and yank it free! Hold it aloft, that all might behold the mighty hero who snatched Life back from the abyss! Roar to the heavens: Not today, damn you! Not today! Do exactly this for literally all of the mussels. It will never get old. Never.

As you're cleaning your bivalves, you'll want to identify and discard any dead ones. This is pretty straightforward. If you come across any open shells, pinch them shut, hard, for a good three-count; if they stay closed, they're alive. If they pop back open and then slowly close again, they're alive. If they pop back open and stay open, they're dead, and belong in the garbage. Also, any clams or mussels whose shells are cracked, crushed, split, or which do not cry when you sing "You're The Inspiration" to them, should be assumed to be dead, or dead on the inside anyway, and in either case should be discarded.

Sweet Jesus, it is finally time to cook some goddamn food. In an big flat-bottomed wok, or a really enormous deep-sided skillet, or a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, cook a bunch of chili flakes in some fat over medium heat for, oh, a couple of minutes. Olive oil's grand, here, and—despite what the traditionalist weenies are about to screech from the windows of their clown car—so is butter. Now, chuck some aromatics in there—a handful of garlic cloves, roughly chopped, plus a finely-chopped shallot or two—and, as soon as they heat up and become fragrant, turn the heat up to high and pour in, oh, what, maybe four or five big glugs of cheap white wine.

You don't need a ton of wine, here: the bivalves will open their shells as they cook, and when they do that they will each release a small amount of fragrant, briny, face-destroyingly delicious liquid (this is called liquor) into the cooking vessel; too much wine will overwhelm this wonderful stuff, and that will be a crime—maybe not an actual crime but a moral one anyway. However big your pot or skillet or wok is, use enough wine to put a half-inch of liquid in the bottom of it. Bring this to a boil, take a minute for some sweet booze-fume-huffing action, and then dump all of your bivalves into the pot or wok or skillet and clamp a lid on it. Set a timer for 10 minutes.

If the lid you used happens to be made of clear glass, bully for you, because you'll get to hang out by the stove and watch as the clam and mussel shells begin popping open under there. If not, that's OK too, because the wine fumes made you a little dizzy and it's fun to kind of teeter around and crash into shit for 10 minutes. In any case, eventually that timer's gonna go off; yank the lid off of your wok or skillet or pot, and behold! Steamed bivalves! Grab a big slotted spoon and remove the clams and mussels to a huge bowl or serving platter. You may notice an odd one or two little bastards whose shells never opened during the cooking process; it's understandable if you want to clamp the lid back on these stragglers for an extra minute to see whether they finally give up the ghost, but truthfully, neither added cooking time nor all the beautiful Peter Cetera music you can belt at them will make them open their hearts to you, for they are dead. Chuck 'em.

Look in your cooking vessel. See all that liquid down there? This is not the sad, cloudy, grim-tasting steaming-liquid you are familiar with from steaming things over water. This is broth! Winy and briny and rich and piquant and aromatic! Vibrant and exciting! You are going to use it.

You can go a couple of ways, here. If you're looking for a heavy main course-type dish, toss this broth with some cooked linguine (and a scoop of the starchy pasta water), and serve this pasta on a big plate, next to or beneath your bivalves. If you're looking for something a bit less substantial and indisputably more fun to eat, serve the bivalves in bowls, ladle the broth over them, and serve them with big hunks of crusty bread slathered with butter. Eat the bivalves, move their shells out of the way, then dredge the bread through the broth like it is the world's most delicious mop and eat it lustily, in huge immodest bites, getting broth and bread crumbs all over your happy face. Seriously, do it that way. So fucking satisfying.

Whichever way you go, squeeze some fresh lemon juice over the bivalves, and sprinkle them with finely-chopped parsley. It is time to eat.


Serve your clams and mussels, in whatever configuration you chose, with some more of that white wine. If you want to stick a big bowl of tart, pungent salad on the table, too, that'll go nicely, unless you forget to include some utensils for serving it, in which case it will not go nicely, or anywhere at all. This food, fresh and bright and pungent and vivid, fun and engaging to eat, vibrant and delicious and intentional-tasting, is all yours. Take your time with it. Taking your time is kind of the whole idea, here.


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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at albertburneko@gmail.com, or publicly and succinctly on Twitter @albertburneko. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.

Image by Sam Woolley.