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Tony Tobin on seafood and why it pays to be shellfish

PUBLISHED: 21:11 14 May 2012 | UPDATED: 15:31 20 February 2013

Surrey Life's celebrity chef Tony Tobin gets ready to cook

Surrey Life's celebrity chef Tony Tobin gets ready to cook

Kitchen Diaries - Our resident celeb chef Tony Tobin on why it pays to be shellfish!

Originally published in Surrey Life October 2008

Kitchen Diaries - Our resident celebrity chef Tony Tobin on why it pays to be shellfish!


I'm on a seafood diet at the moment. I see food and I eat it. Ho ho!

Nothing like a bad joke to start a good column off, particularly as the clocks go back this month and we need a few laughs to keep the bouts of SAD depression at bay across Surrey. However, it wasn't just a joke for the sake of it - I really am going to discuss seafood this month.

Seafood, particularly shellfish, is a dangerous area for the chef - especially the dinner party chef. At my restaurants, I'll also have beef, chicken and mainstream fish on my menus, but when you're cooking for others, serving up seafood is a bit like putting all your chips (another seafood pun to cheer you up) on one roulette number. Very risky... but wonderful if it works!

Everybody knows somebody who claims adamantly that seafood/shellfish doesn't agree with them. In my experience, when you open up the oyster of truth on this kind of claim, it is usually down to a past encounter with a one-off bad specimen or else a dinner party host who didn't know the correct way to check and cook shellfish. There are, of course, people who are simply badly allergic to shellfish, but agreement shouldn't come into it. If you source them well and sauce them well, shellfish and seafood dishes can be exquisite.

The world's your oyster

So, on to Tony's tips...

First, learn the basic rule of shellfish: if the shell is open before cooking, bin it. And if it's still closed after cooking, bin it. It's not a waste, it's saving your guests' weekend and your reputation as a host.

Second, if you have a real seafood virgin on your hands who is not allergic, then you can introduce them gently with scallops. It's hard to find a top restaurant that doesn't serve king scallops because they are the Charolais fillet steaks of the seafood world. Gently seared with a beurre blanc sauce, perhaps a little pea puree and garnished with lamb's lettuce, scallops look as if they are going to taste fishy but actually ooze a tender sweetness that can crack the hardest heart (see the photo if you don't believe me).
Third, mussels with thin salty frites, fried shallots and a dash of white wine sauce. Enough said!

Fourth, oysters are a gamble but you'll rarely get a bad one. Personally, I wouldn't try to wean a novice on to oysters at a dinner party. I think that you should be taught the joys of oysters from relatives and close family friends because teaching someone to eat them is a bit like teaching a child to blow their own nose... gooey but worth the effort. The good thing, though, is that oysters are incredibly well screened by fishmongers before they are sold. There shouldn't really be such a thing as a bad oyster.

Fifth, the lobster is a prince among food and one of the few seafoods that you can be reasonably confident in serving unannounced. Lobsters are not cheap, and they're a bit grisly if you plan to kill them yourself, but they are relatively easy to cook once prepared and the taste - wow... lobster with chilli and tomato linguine is like heaven on a summer afternoon. My main recipe this month (see right) is up there with my all-time favourites (plus, it's one that I won with on Ready Steady Cook!). If it's pay day or you've won the pools or just had enough of the credit crunch, buy a fantastic lobster and shell out (sorry, but I have gone four paragraphs without a pun).

A bit of prawnography

Lastly, don't forget the joys of some shameless prawnography. Prawns are like cheap scallops - delicious, safe and easy to cook. Oriental dishes with prawns, ginger, a few shredded vegetables, noodles and some soy sauce can be cooked and served in five minutes flat. You can pick up a pack of prawns to serve four people for less than a single fillet steak and they are delicious.

So, finally, why shellfish in October? Well, whereas most farmers and fruiterers have probably spent the last few months tramping through wet fields and orchards bemoaning the lack of sunshine and warmth they needed to yield the perfect crop, the fishermen know a very simple truth. The many delicacies that live out their lives under the surface of the water really couldn't care less about the rain. And sometimes it pays to be shellfish!

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