Cajun Cuisine: Should I Eat Shellfish?


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Should I eat shellfish? This is a question that I’ve often asked myself. The answer, however, is not simple, especially if you’re married to a Cajun. Anyone who’s ever been to New Orleans knows that Cajuns love their shellfish!


There are many good arguments both for and against eating shellfish. First, there’s the Biblical argument. God instructed the Israelites to avoid shellfish beginning with a law given in the book of Leviticus. There’s much debate as to why the law was given, if it should still be followed, and by whom. So, if your religious conviction is the primary reason you avoid shellfish, you can stop here. I believe you should follow your conscience.


However, there are other non-religious reasons people give for avoiding shellfish, which I’ll talk about here.


1. Severe allergies.


About 7 million Americans are allergic to shellfish. This allergy often develops in adulthood, and the effects are usually felt within minutes or hours of eating it. Reactions can be mild or severe. If you experience any unusual sensations or difficulty breathing after eating shellfish, you will want to avoid eating it.


2. Crustaceans and mollusks, the two types of shellfish, are scavengers and therefore contain high levels of mercury and other toxins.


Shellfish can be tainted with mercury, depending on where they are harvested and the type of shellfish.  However, on average, shrimp, oysters and scallops have about the same or lower mercury levels than salmon! Crab is a little higher but still considered low. A table of mercury levels in seafood can be found at this website: 

http://www.fda.gov/food/foodborneillnesscontaminants/metals/ucm115644.htm


Shellfish can become tainted with other toxins which they likely ingest along with the plankton they eat. Clams and mussels are the worst offenders, but any shellfish can be suseptible. Cooking thoroughly kills most but not all possible culprits. Keep in mind, food-bourne toxins can also be found in meat, poultry and even vegetables. Always purchase seafood from reputable suppliers who fish in safe waters and undergo proper testing. Whether you’re purchasing seafood, meat or broccoli, some sources are better and safer than others. Be an aware shopper. Try to check online resources for the best fish to buy in your area.


2. Shellfish is high in cholesterol.


Not really. Shellfish contains a number of sterols, including cholesterol. According to the NYU Langone Medical Center, scientists previously didn’t distinguish between the different types of sterols, so the level of cholesterol was overestimated. Shellfish actually has about the same or less cholesterol than meat and poultry. See this table showing comparisons:

http://goaskalice.columbia.edu/shellfish-cholesterol-content


3. Eating foods with cholesterol will raise your blood cholesterol levels and lead to heart disease.


The science has changed on this subject as well. It is now understood that eating trans fats are more detrimental to health than cholesterol or even saturated fats, and the whole diet must be taken into consideration. The way shellfish is prepared is also important. Deep fried shrimp dipped in tartar sauce is not good for you, although that’s the way we ate it when I was a kid! Including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and other whole foods in your diet will likely offset the small amount of cholesterol in foods like shellfish. In fact, some studies show that shellfish can actually lower the bad cholesterol and raise the good. In one small study, a diet of oysters, clams, crab, and mussels lowered triglycerides, as well as LDL and VLDL. The study also showed that a diet of oysters, mussels, and squid actually increased HDL cholesterol.


With all of these possible problems, why should we eat shellfish at all?


1. Shellfish is a protein that is low in fat and calories, gram for gram. If you’re trying to lose weight, seafood and shellfish can be a good choice.

2. Most shellfish is high in heart-healthy omega 3’s, cancer-fighting selenium, B12, iron and zinc.


Additionally, if you’re married to a Cajun, like me, shellfish is the way to your man’s heart. Avoiding seafood of any kind is not acceptable to a “Noo-AW-linz” Cajun man! 


Here are some great ideas for serving the occasional shellfish, if you’re so inclined. We don’t eat shellfish often, but when we do, we thoroughly enjoy it! I had a lot of fun experimenting with ingredients and writing down these recipes while my son was here to help. (Our daughter did not inherit any of the Cajun shellfish-loving genes.)


Shrimp Kabobs and Shrimp Tacos

Here in North Carolina, I keep an eye out for local shrimp and plan a feast when it’s in season. “Previously frozen” shrimp is mushy and not worth it! Some flash-frozen shrimp is fine, as long as you’re throwing it in a pot of gumbo or jambalaya.


1.5 lbs shrimp
2 T. olive oil
Juice f
rom 1 lime
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1/8 - 1/4 tsp. chipotle powder (to taste)
1 tsp. sea salt

When the guys (or anyone else) ask how they can help, get them to peel the shrimp. Shirt, optional.


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Mix remaining ingredients in a shallow dish. Add shrimp and marinate while preparing the rest of the meal.

Cherry tomatoes or red bell pepper slices for kabobs
Greens, like arugula
Red cabbage, chopped
Carrots, grated
Guacamole
Corn Tortillas, heated in skillet or microwave

Prepare and arrange salad vegetables and guacamole on a platter. 


Using wooden skewers alternate shrimp and cherry tomatoes. Place on grill.

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When shrimp is done, heat tortillas. Stack 2 tortillas (for strength), remove the shrimp and tomatoes from one skewer onto tortillas, then add guacamole and veggies. 


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Alternative: make a salad with veggies and put shrimp on the salad with corn chips on the side.


Crabby Cajun Crabcakes

Cajuns want their crabcakes to be mostly crab. The less filler, the better. I made a gluten-free version, just because I could. You’ll need to buy fresh lump crab meat, which is also very expensive. That’s why crab cakes are a special-occasion food for us. I make them only once or twice a year. 


1-1/2 pounds lump crab meat

2 eggs, beaten

1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1 Tablespoon fresh chives, chopped

1 small shallot, minced

1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro

1 Tablespoon mayonnaise

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Zest from 1 lemon, plus the juice

1/4 cup breadcrumbs (I used Glutino gluten-free breadcrumbs) 

1 Tablespoon butter


Combine all ingredients except butter. 


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Form into patties and refrigerate until ready to cook.


Heat butter in a skillet or cast iron pan. Optionally, you can sprinkle cakes lightly with more fine breadcrumbs. Place cakes on hot skillet and brown on both sides about 5 minutes each side, depending on how thick you made them.

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I served them with some spring asparagus and figs from California. 


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ENJOY!





References


http://www.med.nyu.edu/content?ChunkIID=14033

http://www.fda.gov/food/foodborneillnesscontaminants/metals/ucm115644.htm

http://www.joybauer.com/food-articles/fish-and-shellfish.aspx

http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/risk-shellfish-2026.html

http://www.ift.org/Knowledge-Center/Learn-About-Food-Science/Food-Facts/Selecting-Safe-Seafood.aspx

http://goaskalice.columbia.edu/shellfish-cholesterol-content



© Bobbi Mullins 2011, All rights reserved. FOOD FITNESS FAITH™