Page 1 of 4
By Rick Browne, Ph.B.
Grillin’ University Professor at Large
In the world of backyard barbecue cookery, there are lots of things people love to cook: steaks, ribs, pork shoulders, hot dogs, hamburgers, leg of lamb, and on and on. Even filets, steaks, and whole fish are popular entrees thrown on the grill. However, one class of seafood seems to be forgotten when it comes to outdoor cooking: shellfish. Other than shrimp and prawns, which lots of people do grill, there are many critters wearing shells that are usually consigned to the kitchen oven.
Prawns in Orange-Ginger Sauce
BBQ Baked Feta Prawns
La Barraca Mussels
Grilled Swordfish Steaks
Grilled (not boiled) lobster, grilled Maryland blue crabs or Alaskan king crabs, barbecued oysters and clams, and-oh yes-shrimp and tiger prawns, all take on a wonderful flavor when cooked over charcoal or gas flames. The secret? Don't overcook. While the shells naturally protect the meat inside, keeping it moist, overzealous cooking can quickly dry out the tender flesh.
Some tips: Shrimp and prawns are easily overdone, so cook them on a hot grill for about 2-3 minutes per side. As soon as you see the sides of the shellfish turn opaque, turn them over and cook only until the second side turns white-pink and is just beginning to char. For heaven's sake leave the shells on! They conduct heat and they hold in the moisture.
Shrimp are also perfect for grilling in foil packets: put 1/2 dozen shrimp in the center of a large piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil, drizzle the seafood with olive oil, add some chopped shallots, a squeeze or two of lemon, and cook over a hot grill for 10 to12 minutes. Be careful when you open the packets, as the super hot steam can easily burn you.
To grill a lobster, cut it in half lengthwise, slather lemon-butter on the exposed flesh, then grill over medium heat until the meat turns opaque and just begins to brown. Turn the lobster over and grill it for another 4 to 6 minutes, brushing the exposed flesh with butter. Remove the lobster from the grill, detach the large claws, and put them back on the grill for another 5 to 6 minutes.
Crayfish are cooked the same way-split in half lengthwise and placed directly on the grill after being brushed with butter-but they should be cooked for only 2 to 4 minutes per side, until they turn bright red.
Oysters are perhaps the easiest sea critter to cook. You can just lay them whole on a hot grill and let them cook until they open (usually 1 to 3 minutes). Remove the cooked oysters, drizzle with sauce and serve.
As another option, you can remove the top shell, drizzle butter or sauce on the raw flesh, and grill just until the butter or sauce sizzles. Sprinkle the finished oysters with fresh parsley and serve. Clams can be handled the same way but are best cooked in the whole shell; the small amount of flesh in clams easily dries out when cooked exposed in an open shell. I prefer to cook mussels on the barbecue in a cast iron pot containing water, wine and herbs. Dip chunks of French baguettes into the steaming broth after the mussels are cooked.
Though the mollusks and shellfish are prepared on a grill, the cooking method actually is a steaming process, since the flames and hot coals cause them to steam in their own juices, with their shells acting as miniature pans. Oysters, clams, and mussels have built-in “timers”-their shells are tightly closed when fresh, but they pop open when they are done cooking. Any shell that doesn't open at all should be discarded-it is probably bad.
Soft shell crabs are a bit too fragile to be cooked directly on a barbecue, but can be grilled on a flat grill plate, or—even better—cooked in the barbecue on a cast iron pan in butter, olive oil, and spices. Do not overcook, as the meat quickly becomes tough and rubbery. A maximum cooking time of 8 to 10 minutes, will give you tender crabs that are loaded with flavor.
King crabs and Dungeness crabs are better steamed or cooked in boiling water-either on the grill, a side burner, or a separate gas burner. In a large pot of water add salt, pepper, green herbs of your choice (oregano, thyme, basil, savory, rosemary), and a couple of lemon quarters. Boil just until the crab shell turns red.
King crabs are mostly pre-cooked when you buy them, but try drizzling the legs (which you've cracked with the back of a large knife) with herbed-butter or oil, grilling them for 2 to 3 minutes per side to warm them up. Serve them up as a delicious entrée or appetizer.
A few points to remember: rinse all shellfish in cold water, thoroughly oil your grill before you cook shellfish, do not let cooked shellfish touch uncooked shellfish, and always wash your hands after touching any raw shellfish or mollusks. Being careful, having a clean working area, grilling the shellfish until they are properly cooked, and serving the food immediately after it's cooked are smart ways that you can play the barbecue shell game and always come out a winner.