Cider-Steamed Shellfish

If you are fond of mollusks, you've most certainly had a big pot of steamed mussels or clams. With a wine base, that's a classic Italian restaurant appetizer. You'll see the same, only with beer, on pub menus around the world. Why? Because it's simple to prepare and delicious. All you need is a pot, a pile of shellfish, a liquid, and some aromatics. Within 15 minutes you've got a big bowl of seafood bathed in it's own flavor-packed sauce that begs for bread to be dipped in and savored.

Of course, when we see beer or wine in a recipe, we immediately consider going a little off-script to incorporate cider. We had a bottle of Dressler Estate Modern Still cider, which--as the name suggests--isn't carbonated. It drinks more like a white wine than the ciders many people are used to. It's soft and subtle, with a touch of acidity and light apple aroma. This isn't a cider that would fight against the delicate seafood. And in fact, something special happened when Modern Still reduced down with the brine that the shellfish threw off: the salt boosted the fruity apple flavor in the finished cooking liquid. We drank the rest of the bottle along with the meal and the contrast of subtlety in the glass and boldness in the bowl was striking.

Here's how we made this gorgeous dinner...

Pick a selection of shellfish that's nice and fresh. Clams, mussels, shrimp, and bay scallops caught our eye this time. Squid would add a nice textural contrast if you can find it. Getting away from mollusks and such, don't be afraid to throw in a small piece of wild salmon.

Now let's build some flavor.

We need an herb-y note to freshen up the brine-y tangle of seafood. You could use anything really: the lemon notes from flat-leaf parsley are always a winner with anything from the ocean, as is the bright green punch of cilantro (as long as you aren't one of those people who think it tastes like soap). If you're going with a delicate herb like those, hold them off till the end to sprinkle on before serving.

For this dish, since we're using a dry, fruit-forward cider, we grabbed a handful of fresh sage because it's a classic flavor match with apples. A few sprigs of fresh rosemary would be excellent as well. Over medium heat, melt a knob of butter with a slick of olive oil, then fry the sage till it starts to get crispy. Remove it and hold until the dish is done.

That's an incredibly tasty base of fat to build from.

Garlic is non-negotiable. Toss two or three cloves thinly sliced into the pan. If you have dried chiles in your pantry--you should--break two of them and toss them in as well. Keep your eye on these and have your cider at the ready, as garlic will burn bitter quickly. Let's call it 30 seconds to a minute.

When the garlic is sizzling and golden, pour in about 1/2 cup of cider, then drop in your clams (a dozen for two people is plenty). Put the lid on and let them steam till they open. When they've all met their demise, pull them out and set aside in a bowl.

Next in the bath, the mussels (1 pound will be more than enough). Give them the same treatment as the clams, though they'll cook a bit faster. Remove to the same bowl with the mussels.

While that right there is enough to make a fine meal, we figured we'd really fish it up with some shrimp and bay scallops--1/4 pound of each. Into the cooking liquid they go, lid on for one minute, and they'll be just about done. Pour the clams and mussels back in, stir it all together, and cook for another a minute or so until everything is cooked through. The shrimp will tell you they are done when they are all pink.

tTake the pot straight to the table with a second bowl for shells, crush the reserved sage leaves over top, and tuck in. You didn't forget a loaf of crusty bread, did you? For shame, if you did, because you'll need it (drizzled with olive oil, quickly toasted, then rubbed with a raw clove of garlic) to soak up the liquid in the pan. That's the real star of this dish...the essence of the ocean and the sweetness of the orchard, all garlicky and spicy and earthy. If bread is not your thing, you could toss over some pasta.

Next time you get the urge to steam some seafood, reach for a cider.