Why You Should Try Tinned Shellfish
Tinned shellfish can be a regular pantry item or a bona fide luxury item. There are tins for packed lunches, speedy dinners, camping, romantic dinners, and smart parties. Here are some practical guidelines, but you should let your palate take you from there.
My family is half Italian American, and this meant we always had canned clams on hand when I was growing up. These days I always have fresh clams available at my shop, but I still have a real affection the tinned version! There are a few different varieties of tinned clams available. When you buy chopped clams, these are generally Atlantic surf clams. They are sweet in flavor and have a firm texture. You can buy chopped clams in almost any grocery store. Look for products of the United States. Tinned whole clams are brinier and more delicate than chopped clams. I prefer jarred whole tiny clams from Italy if you can find them. If you can't find whole clams from the U.S. or Europe, you're better off skipping them and buying chopped clams.
They may seem vaguely old fashioned, almost outdated but smoked oysters are delicious and deserve a revival. Know that they are a food where quality can really vary, so seek out producers who take care with their sourcing, smoking, and packing. There some good ones in the Pacific Northwest, both in the U.S. and Canada. Some of these smoked oysters aren't actually tinned; they are packed in vacuum-sealed pouches. My favorite smoked oysters come from the Ekone Oyster Company in Washington state. You can also find tinned non-smoked oysters, but I don't rate them. They can never replace fresh oysters, whether live or shucked and packed. While we're on the subject of items to avoid, add canned shrimp. Say no, and don't give it a second thought.
Shopping for Tinned Shellfish
You will find more tinned fish than shellfish in the average American supermarket. That doesn't mean there isn't a world of tinned shellfish to explore, just that you'll need to look a little further afield. For the Spanish and Portuguese, tinned seafood or conservas are an integral part of their culinary culture. The quality of ingredients and the care with which they are packed and processed is unparalleled. As a result, these products are often more expensive, special occasion items for most of us. Many of them have very beautiful packaging. Jose Gourmet and Los Peperetes are two great brands. As such, these tins make thoughtful gifts. Conservas comprise everything from familiar shellfish like mussels and squid, to more unusual items like cockles and razor clams, to truly esoteric (and wonderful) shellfish like gooseneck barnacles and sea urchin roe. Squid, in many forms; in olive oil, in ink, stuffed and more, in tins or jars, is wonderful preserved. Tinned squid is especially tender, and it is an affordable place to start exploring the world of conservas. If you like tinned squid, next time treat yourself to its luxe cousin, tinned octopus. Spain and Portugal both have artisanal octopus fisheries that are well regarded from environmental and conservation perspectives.
Of the bivalve conservas, tinned razor clams are plump and meaty, while cockles are much more delicate. These are generally packed in brine, while mussels are frequently pickled in olive oil (escabeche). I also like Italian jarred mussels, which are the only product I've found packed in brine (rather than oil) that stay moist. Tinned scallops (frequently tinned with their roe) are another popular conserva, though they are a bit harder to find here in the States than some other shellfish.
There Are So Many Ways to Enjoy Tinned Shellfish
Chopped clams are best added to dishes. Pasta with clam sauce, chowders, fritters and clam dip are a few great uses for chopped clams. Tiny jarred clams and jarred mussels are also great with pasta, in salads, or any dish where they are lightly warmed. They will turn into little erasers if overcooked. This is also true of tinned sea urchin. This very delicious, very special item should be served at room temperature (on buttered toast, or any dish where fish roe/caviar is used) or folded into dishes at the end of their cooking time (pasta, scrambled eggs). Smoked oysters can be eaten warmed or at room temperature. They can also be incorporated into recipes. Any time you warm a tin of seafood in the oven, make sure to crack the seal first. Otherwise you will have an explosion on your hands when opening the hot tin!
Conservas and other specialty canned shellfish (and fishes) are also delicious warmed. If your tin is packed with a sauce (many have tomato sauce or are lightly pickled) you probably won't need to add a thing once the tin is hot. You might like to give shellfish in brine, squid ink or olive oil or a squeeze of lemon. Alternately, you can add a tiny splash of white wine to your tin before heating it. Do you need to heat these tins? No! Canned seafood makes for a great not-sad desk lunch or snack.
Is This a Golden Age for Canned Fish and Shellfish?
Wherever or however you enjoy your tinned seafood, the future looks bright for your continued exploration. Several restaurants featuring tins have opened in the past few years, bringing lots of new things for diners to try. Perhaps even more exciting, new products are joining the old guard. Young fishermen and artisanal smokehouses in the States are canning seafood in exciting new ways. Tinned smoked geoduck from Wildfish Cannery in Alaska? Yes, please!