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Summer Shell Game: Grilled Clams, Mussels, Shrimp

I love to eat shellfish in the summer. I love sucking the sweet meat out of shrimp and ordering their tails in a ring around a paper picnic plate. I love going to the nearest shoreline and feasting on fried clams till my pores shine. I love tearing through a mountain of mussels and piling their shells high in the compost, and then finding them a year later, bleached lavender, tucked among my vegetables as if they got lost coming home from the seaside.

At the critical moment, the hinge muscle tightens and the shells spring apart with a POP. The clam, pink and tender, clings to the upper shell while a miniature soup dish of precious broth teeters on the grill.

Everyone loves to grill in the summer. I think it's the freedom you feel under the open sky, and the pure and primitive heat below. It's the thrill of open fire beneath drifts of cumulus or distant thunder. It's the way the kiss of smoke and the buzz of charcoal dance and sing with a cold pale ale. It's the pot-less, scrub-less cleanup.

In the past I rarely attempted to follow those two summer passions to their logical outcome: grilled shellfish. Hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs, chicken — every creature of the land can and did end up on my grill and my neighbors' grill, but for a long time I steered clear of crustaceans and let the bivalves be. I suppose that made a certain sense. Shellfish cook fast any way you approach them, so there's no speed advantage to a grill. Unit for unit, you need more shellfish per person than you do of say, steak, which means more work with the tongs. And the flame-kissed crust you get on grilled meat finds as little purchase on a clamshell as it would on a ceramic casserole.

But recently I've discovered that to grill shellfish does have its charms. Separated from the infernal heat by only the open metalwork of a rack and an eighth-inch of organically grown calcium, the interior of a shellfish cooks fast and furiously, steamed tender in an instant in the fragrant, briny environment of its own shell. Whatever seawater suffuses that mysterious abode is the liquor that it cooks in, so no flavor is boiled or steamed away.

Clams on the grill seem devoid of drama, at first. They sit there, as motionless as castanets, silently enduring the hot, ceaseless persuasion of the flames. At the critical moment, the hinge muscle tightens and the shells spring apart with a POP. The clam, pink and tender, clings to the upper shell while a miniature soup dish of precious broth teeters on the grill.

Mussels yield up their secrets sooner, hissing and creaking as their shells gradually open around the coral-colored bean of flesh. It takes them a few minutes to gape and stretch apart, and even then, the interiors may still need a minute more or two. The surest way to tell is to taste them for yourself. Go ahead, take one for the team.

Easiest of all to cook are shrimp, with their color-coded alert system. It glows right through their cellophane shells, swiftly passing from the pearly gray of Raw to the luminous opaque blush that says Nearly There. By the time they've turned to sunset pink (i.e., Eat Me Now) there are savory charcoal spots on the shells, a visual guarantee that moisture and flavor have been temporarily heat-locked inside.

With all shellfish, you'll want to airlift your prize away from those withering flames quickly, but it's not easy. Even if you're a demon with the tongs, you can't get every last one pulled away before the last stragglers start to overcook (not to mention that you've now singed the hairs on your forearm to a crisp).

For me, salvation came from an unexpected source — a vegetable grate, little more than a stainless steel tray with 1/2-inch perforations. I'd bought it years ago in a spate of good intentions regarding vegetables (intentions that were never realized). I dug the grate out and plopped it right atop the Weber, where it would later provide my shellfish with the means for a speedy getaway.

Many variations on this utensil exist — some for fish, some for vegetables. There's even one made specifically for clams and oysters (the GreatGrate, a stylish triangle grid). Really, though, what you need is some sort of device that will slow down everyone else at the table so that you're guaranteed to get your fair share of the catch. (Failing that, you can always try pointing toward the driveway and shouting, "Look! Your car's on fire!")

For as quick as they are to cook, shellfish are even quicker to eat. You can cook them by the dozen, yet somehow they vanish as inexorably as the last evening tide. As if it had never happened, there you find yourself time and time again, suddenly sated amid a heap of shells — alone with a tasty memory, and a still-warm grill.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, NPR.org and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.