Alex Guarnaschelli, chef at New York City's Butter restaurant, is crazy about clams. "I use clams and mussels with wild abandon. I also use oysters a lot," she says. "They're farm-raised with a minimal impact to the environment, plus clams and mussels clean the water! And they taste delicious—I love that you can crack something open and it tastes like the ocean."
Clams and mussels, with their intricate hinged shells, are often overlooked by the home cook, but they'll be reoccurring guest stars on Guarnaschelli's new Food Network show "Alex's Day Off." She's eager to introduce people to their delicious flavors, as well as the fact that they're easy to cook. "They're the only seafood that comes with their own built-in timing mechanism," she enthuses. "It's like a pop-up thermometer on a turkey—they open and they're done!"
Guarnaschelli's excitement about food, and her appreciation for the importance of local, seasonal ingredients, stretches back to her childhood. Her mother was a cookbook editor and her father an avid home cook, who would buy fresh whole bluefish "practically off the boat," bringing it home to clean and cook in a sizzling hot pan. "It's very much the way I grew up," she says of eating seasonally.
As a young chef working in Paris at the renowned restaurant Guy Savoy, Guarnaschelli spent three years cooking exclusively with fish; cleaning it, butchering it, and finally, when she had mastered those tasks, cooking it. "What came out of the boats was what we cooked and sold," she says. She's carried that commitment to using the very best ingredients on to her New York restaurant, her life as a wife and mother, and her work with the Food Network. And she's eager to spread the word.
"The most important thing to me is that we rethink how we see fish as an ingredient—that we look at it the way we look at the seasonality of other things," she says. "I'm not going to buy a strawberry in January, and when the striped bass comes into season, that's when I'm going to buy the striped bass."
Guarnaschelli recognizes that shopping for seafood at the local grocery store can sometimes be a challenge. Her advice is to use the Seafood Watch recommendations, get to know the person who stocks the seafood at your store and ask questions. Start a conversation, she advises and amazing things happen. "It doesn't take but a second to ask," she says, "and it'll change your cooking, change your choices, and make your food healthier for you, your body and the environment."