An open-and-shut case for cooking bivalves on the grill

Kiss of Smoke Clam Risotto. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post
Kiss of Smoke Clam Risotto. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post

Credit: For The Washington Post

Credit: For The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - Among the grilled and smoked foods, bivalves seem special somehow. (Think oysters and New Year's.) They're also among the easiest to prepare, as long as you know the basics.

"You learn by your mistakes," says Judith M. Fertig, the co-author of "Fish & Shellfish, Grilled & Smoked," published back in 2002 but still one of my favorites. "When we wrote the book, you couldn't google things. Not a lot of people were blogging. So you just had to experiment. When we experimented with mussels and oysters, we thought you could just put them on and smoke. We learned you couldn't do that, because they need a high temperature to open."

Fertig these days employs a technique she calls "kiss of smoke," which involves starting a hot indirect charcoal fire and setting wood chips or chunks at the fire's periphery, just long enough to smolder. "When you see the wisp of smoke, that's when you put on the oysters," she says. The bivalves can go on the indirect-heat side of the fire or over direct heat, with a close eye. They open within a few minutes and take on just a light smoke.

Being careful not to overcook mollusks is important. "People always worry about oysters not getting done," Fertig says. "That's the opposite of what you should worry about. People eat them raw."

Same goes for mussels and clams.

Dorian Brown, owner of Neopol Savory Smokery in Union Market, sells meaty, wonderfully smoked mussels, sometimes Prince Edward Islands, sometimes New Zealands. "You gotta get the smoke on there," Brown says, but adds, "too long and they turn to ash."

Brown par-steams them, just enough to open them, then marinates them in a citrus-based blend. He declines to divulge the recipe, but says "the marinade should have a little sweetness to offset the smokiness." He smokes the mussels at a very low 120 degrees for about an hour and moistens them with a little olive oil after they come off the grill.

Adding some fat to the bivalves also adds richness. Kevin Kelly, the executive chef at Rappahannock Oyster Bar, just a short walk from Neopol at Union Market, makes a smoked-jalapeño butter that he serves on the side of grilled oysters on the half shell. "It adds an umami taste," he says.

I like the taste so much that I add the butter directly into the preparation of a wine, garlic and mussel liquor sauce that I pour over mussels. In a pot on the stove top, I poach the mussels in a cup of white wine, some chopped garlic and a little lemon juice. After the shells open, I remove the mussels from the pot and put them on the cool side of an indirect fire to smoke briefly. Just before serving, I stir the butter into the poaching liquid, then pour the broth over the mussels in a bowl. The butter not only imparts a touch more smokiness but also lends a lovely creaminess to the sauce.

Oysters, mussels and clams can be grilled over a hot fire until their shells open. They can be removed from the grill and eaten at that point or left on to take on a little more grill or smoke flavor. Oysters can also be shucked and then smoked.

Whatever the technique, it's good to save the liquor in the shell, as its rustic flavor adds dimension to almost any dish. I add the liquor to a clam risotto for a hint of smokiness that plays well with the lemony flavor. A longtime friend of mine, Marion Winik, who makes a version of a New Orleans staple, oyster and artichoke stew, recently doctored her version with smoked oysters and their liquor. It was served as an appetizer, but serious restraint was required to not down the entire pot there on the spot.

Now, that was special.