Summertime presents a serious Catch-22 for shellfish lovers all across the nation. The sizzling temperatures make light, crisp shellfish delicacies ideal lunch and dinner options, however this is also the time of the year when the waters are warm and shellfish are at their worst.
Every summer, usually starting in June and July depending on how fast temperatures rise, shellfish varieties everywhere around the country begin their annual spawning rituals. Warm water temperatures alert clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops that it's time to get down to the business of making more clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops. When shellfish are spawning their meats weaken and their flavor deteriorates, and often they give off foul to fetid odors. Sometimes you can't tell if the animal has spawned until you have cooked it or opened its shell. The shelf life of these products shortens significantly during this period and the "natural courtship" can take a few weeks to pass before the species once again regain their sweet flavors and firm textures.
Some oyster farmers have begun growing oysters with extra chromosomes to help fend off the summer love fest. These oysters do not spawn and are able to be enjoyed year-round. Mussels, scallops, and clams, however, have not greatly benefitted from such scientific advances.
So, choosing to eat shellfish during the summer months can be a little like playing Russian roulette. My advice is to always purchase shellfish from reputable fish markets that specialize in quality seafood, such as Black Salt Fish Market. Make sure when you purchase shellfish they are live when they are supposed to be, appear moist and intact, and are sold cold. Scallops can have a stronger fragrance during this time which is natural, but avoid products that are overly aggressive. You will notice mussel, clam, and oyster meats are thinner and less full, but this is just part of the process. If you notice off-putting smells when cooking clams or mussels, you usually can find the culprit by investigating each one and discarding the offending "Romeo" without losing your entire batch. Don't fret too much, eventually fall will come and remind shellfish everywhere to once again fatten to their delicious richness and get back to the task of feeding and filtering. Summer love isn't always what its cracked up to be but, alas, its a yearly ritual that reminds us that even a mussel needs a little time to itself.