By Marie Rama, Bryan Miller

Poaching seafood is a fabulous way to preserve its flavor and texture, especially with firm-textured fish like salmon, tuna, halibut, cod, and swordfish. The only drawback is that it takes on no flavors while cooking, as it does when seasoned and sautéed. Therefore, poached seafood usually calls for a sauce of some sort.

But if you poach seafood in seasoned vegetable broth, fish broth, or water with a splash of clam juice, it will take on a subtle, herby flavor.

You have to watch the clock to prevent overcooking and keep the poaching liquid to a gentle simmer. Vigorous boiling breaks up the fish’s tender flesh.

The best way to cook seafood in the shell — clams, mussels, and lobster — is to steam or boil it. The former yields a slightly better texture and flavor. Steaming calls for a trivet or basket to keep the food off the bottom of the pot.

The recipe for Steamed Mussels is as basic as it gets and is also suitable with littleneck or cherrystone clams. Cherrystone clams are the largest of these bivalves. Depending on their size, they take 8 to 10 minutes to steam open. When you’ve mastered this cooking technique, you can season the broth any way you like it.

Steamed Mussels

Preparation time: About 20 minutes

Cook time: About 15 minutes

Yield: 2–3 servings

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, chopped (about 1/2 cup)

1 large ripe tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped, or 1 cup canned chopped tomatoes

4 medium cloves garlic, chopped

1-1/2 cups dry white wine or chicken broth

3 long sprigs fresh thyme

Large pinch red pepper flakes

Pinch salt

2 pounds mussels, scrubbed and debearded

1⁄3 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves

Crusty French baguette or Italian bread, sliced

  1. Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter and the olive oil in a large 6- to 8-quart pot over medium until the fat starts to shimmer.

    Add the onion and cook about 3 minutes or until transparent, stirring occasionally. Add the tomato and garlic and cook about 2 minutes until the garlic is fragrant and the tomato has softened.

  2. Add the wine or chicken broth, thyme sprigs, red pepper flakes, and salt; cover the pot, raise the heat to high and bring the broth to a simmer.

    Lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 4 to 5 minutes to blend the flavors and reduce slightly.

  3. Increase the heat to high and add the mussels.

    Cover and cook until the mussels open, 4 to 6 minutes, gently turning them over once in the broth. Discard any mussels that don’t open.

  4. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the mussels to a large serving bowl.

  5. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and parsley to the broth and stir over medium heat until the butter melts.

    Pour the hot broth over the mussels and serve with the bread to soak up the sauce.

Per serving: Calories 617 (From Fat 180); Fat 20g (Saturated 7g); Cholesterol 105mg; Sodium 1,282mg; Carbohydrate 46g (Dietary Fiber 3g); Protein 43g.

Substitute 1 medium chopped shallot or 4 chopped scallions for the onion. Substitute fresh chopped basil for the parsley. Add a large pinch of saffron threads to the steaming broth. Substitute beer or bottled clam juice for the white wine. Add 2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger to the poaching liquid. Instead of serving with bread, toss the shellfish and the broth over a bowl of hot, cooked pasta.