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Clams and oysters don’t immediately come to mind when you’re firing up the grill, yet they’re practically designed for grilling. Think about it: their hard, curved shells protect the tender meat inside as they cook, holding not only the bivalves’ own tasty liquor but also whatever sauce or garnish you bestow upon them. Plus, their sweet, salty flavors go wonderfully well with the smoky flavor from the fire. Once you try this technique, I’m sure you’ll add it to your grilling repertoire.
Let the grill do the shucking
When I prepare shellfish for the grill, I usually shuck them first, as I would for serving them raw, with the meat resting in the curved shell. With the top shell off, I can most accurately gauge how quickly they’re cooking. But since I’ve spent many, many years handling shellfish, shucking is probably easier for me than it is for most home cooks. Fortunately, one of the great things about grilling clams and oysters is that you can use the heat of the grill to coax their shells open. But you’ll want to watch the shellfish carefully because by the time the shells open up completely—as they go from a crack to a maw—the meat inside may have overcooked; this is especially true for oysters.
For best results, be diligent and wield a pair of good tongs. (I use spring-action stainless-steel tongs that are about nine inches long.) As soon as a bivalve begins to gape, help it along by wedging the tongs between the two shells. This is easier to do if you take them off the grill. Use a thick kitchen towel or a mitt to protect your hand as you work. Once the shell is open, you can better judge the cooking. Be sure to take the mollusks off the heat as soon as the meat begins to firm and the edges curl.
Choose hard-shelled clams and oysters
Most types of oysters are good for grilling because they all have relatively hard shells. I’ve noticed that some varieties with heavily pocked shells—Spinney Creeks from Maine, for example—are more fragile and tend to crumble with the heat. If you have a choice, avoid this type.
Good clams for grilling are our northern hard clams, harvested from Atlantic Canada to the American South, but associated most strongly with New England’s seafood traditions. They’re categorized according to size: littlenecks (the smallest), countnecks, cherrystones, and quahogs or chowder clams (the largest). I like countnecks and cherrystones for the grill because they’re big enough to be worth my while yet they’re not as tough as chowder clams. Never grill steamer clams directly over a fire: their shells are much too fragile for grilling.
Mussels are also great on the grill. Mussels, which I never shuck before grilling, work nearly as well as oysters and clams. Their only drawback is that, because they tend to be thinner, they can easily fall between the grates. At home, I grill mussels in a grilling basket, but they also cook perfectly well on one of those steel cooking grids.
Be sure to clean all shellfish before grilling. All mollusks should be washed well with a stiff brush under cool running water before grilling. Pay extra attention to the hinge, which often collects natural marine muck and mud.
A hot—but not too-hot—fire
When grilling bivalves, the heat of the fire must not be extreme. Oyster shell material is deposited by the mollusk in layers, producing a laminated shell that can shatter or even explode if the heat is extreme. (Never drop oyster shells directly into the coals, and use tongs to quickly remove any shells that do fall into the fire.) For this reason, the grill’s heat should be medium hot at most. To test for the proper heat, hold your palm an inch or two above the grate. The heat is about right when you can hold your hand there for two seconds before you have to pull it away.
I build my fire with a chimney starter, which I prefer to liquid starter—no residual petroleum aromas. (If you don’t have a chimney starter, get one; they’re inexpensive and convenient.) I also prefer lump or natural hardwood charcoal to traditional briquettes. For my 27-inch Weber grill, I fill a 12 x 7-1/2-inch chimney starter to the brim with natural charcoal. When the coals are uniformly glowing, I turn the contents of the chimney into the grill and spread them evenly, a rather sparse distribution that’s perfect for bivalves.
Of course, you can cook the shellfish on a gas grill, but you won’t get the great smoky flavor a true fire delivers.
Serve with melted butter, cocktail sauce, or one of the following recipes
Grilled shellfish make wonderful appetizers. At a casual gathering, friends can gather around and enjoy the clams and oysters as they come off the grill. For a more formal presentation, the bivalves may be briefly reheated with their sauce and then put on a plate or platter. Plain melted butter is a fine, traditional accompaniment. The garlic butter recipe that follows, however, is a showstopper. For a bright, peppery kick, try the verjus version of the classic mignonette. Other toppings you might consider include your favorite barbecue sauce, freshly made pesto, a curry vinaigrette, or a sprinkling of bacon and parsley.