One of the most enjoyable meals I can think of to sit down to on a relaxed, sunny day is a big, flavorful mixture of seafood brimming with summer vegetables, fish fillets, and steamed clams and mussels. And the recipe for the delightfully named dish from Italy's Naples region, "acqua pazza" (literally "crazy water") serves that purpose perfectly.
But wait a minute, you might be thinking. Shellfish in summer, a season whose months are conspicuously missing from their names the "r" many people have been taught has to be present to indicate it's safe to eat mollusks like clams and mussels?
The "r" rule dates back at least a few centuries. It served as a simple way to sum up the fact that warm-weather brings on several shellfish problems. Heat promotes the development of coastal red tides that may turn shellfish toxic. Mollusks also spawn in this season, which can affect their texture and flavor. And, like all foods, if not safely stored they can spoil more quickly when temperatures rise.
The good news is that the modern commercial cultivation of shellfish under carefully controlled conditions helps to avoid all these r-month challenges. And government regulations and testing help to ensure that suppliers meet scrupulous safety standards. Nowadays, you can be pretty sure that any shellfish you see for sale in a reputable seafood shop or supermarket, or on a reliable restaurant's menu, are going to be safe to eat.
Still, as you would for any ingredients you buy or meals you order, you should take your own precautions. Turn back shellfish that don't look or smell absolutely fresh, or that seem suspicious in any way, whether in the market or at the table. When you buy fresh shellfish to cook at home, get them home quickly; on a hot day, it's a good idea to ask the place you bought them to pack them with ice for you. Once home, take them off the ice and unwrap them; cover loosely with a clean, damp towel or paper towel (do not store in a plastic bag or sealed container that cuts off their air); and store in the coldest part of the refrigerator, at about 35 degrees F., and cook within a couple of days but preferably on the day you bought them. After cooking, discard any with unopened shells.
That's all you need to know to enjoy fresh shellfish in my summery seafood stew, rich with the aromas of fresh tomatoes, garlic, saffron, and fresh basil. As the recipe's name suggests, I'm sure you'll go crazy for the delicious results.
ACQUA PAZZA WITH SEA BASS, CLAMS, AND MUSSELS
1 pound organic tomatoes
8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
Generous pinch saffron threads
1 pound live Littleneck clams, thoroughly rinsed and drained
1 pound live black mussels, debearded, thoroughly rinsed and drained
1/2 cup dry white wine