Thursday, January 6, 2011

The magnificent Pen Shell



I've been making an attempt to inhale everything there is to read about shellfish in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico, and there is not much on the subject without delving into specialized scientific material, which is not as much fun to read as you would think. Little material for the interested layman is what I'm trying to say, and next to nothing about how, when, or possibly where to find live shellfish (oysters aside, of course). All of this has made shellfishing a matter of knowing what could or should be in a certain area, and then finding the critter where the books say it might be, using methods that the books say might or might not work, all the while keeping an eye out for something completely unexpected.

The day after christmas was spent in a good bay. The water had blown out and was staying out. The bay, which is never very deep, was beautifully empty, and there was not enough wind to stir up the few inches of water remaining. Clamming was the game, as the southern quahogs were spitting water everywhere, and it was only a matter of trudging over to a lump and digging the clam up. We were almost at our limits when my clamming partner noticed what appeared to be a long, strange oyster poking just above the surface of the sand, valves open, in three inches of water. I reached down and felt the surface of the shell, and I knew that we'd found a Pen Shell.

The Pen Shell, also called the Sea Wing, Fan Mussel, Jambonneau, Tairagai, and Hoy Jawp, is one of several species of Atrina, and shares characteristics with oysters, scallops, and mussels. They grow to be as long as a foot or more in our waters- none of those pictured above were less than ten inches, and a few were over thirteen. They have the general shape of a mussel, complete with a long byssus, or beard (incidentally, this bysssus was used in the eastern Mediterranean to produce a fabric reportedly finer than silk, called byssa, which was one of the more costly fabrics in history). The shell is black or brown, but if one chips it away, a brilliant metallic inner shell is exposed.

Pen Shells will only be found on sandy or grassy bottoms exposed by very low tides. The good news is that they usually can be found in loose clusters, with two to five animals in a ten square foot radius. As stated before, the Pen Shell lives buried almost up to the tips of its shell. Happily, excavation is quick. Work your hands down the sides of the shell, then slowly pull when you can get a good hold. It would be much easier to use a face mask to find Pen Shells, but I for one have no interest in swimming in the bays during the winter.

Most bi-valves, Pen Shells included, are quite easy to keep alive for several days. Simply fill a cooler with clean seawater that has been strained through a paper towel, and put in the shellfish, starting with clams and heavy creatures on the bottom. Straining the water about once a day is all that is necessary to keep the water barely oxygenated and clean. An added benefit is that shellfish will purge nicely in a day if held this way.


Opening a just-harvested Pen Shell is challenging if one is trying to keep the fragile shells intact. On the other hand, it is easy to remove the meat in one piece if one simply snaps the narrow tip off of the shell. Admittedly, you lose the shell, but otherwise you need to wait for two or three days for the adductor muscle to relax somewhat.
A knife may then be slid between the muscles and the shells. Though you should crack the shell over a bowl to catch any liquid, the majority of the juice that pours out of the shell is water (The Pen Shells valves close imperfectly, allowing in some water all the time). True Pen Shell liquor will be slightly viscous, and the liquor is the last liquid to come out of the shell- don't worry, you will know it when you see it. Upon opening a Pen Shell, one is struck by the very large adductor muscle, which resembles a scallop muscle- though it tastes much better than your average scallop. This muscle is apparently used in Japan for sashimi, and it's the reason I don't care as much for steaming open Pen Shells- you will lose the raw 'scallop'. Don't forget the small disk of meat adjacent to the adductor muscle. When cooked, this little portion looks like jumbo lump crab meat with the the taste of lobster.
Do NOT discard the rest of the organs. They are as edible and tasty as clam and oyster and scallop guts. Due to the size of the Pen Shell, the texture of the guts might not be appealing to all at the table.
However, if minced and used in stuffings, or to thicken sauces or soups, or suitably poached, Pen Shell organs are exquisite. When cleaning the Pen Shells, be sure to carefully inspect all organs, especially the mantle muscle and gonads, for they are known to produce black pearls. We have a small box at home containing 14 pearls we've gathered so far.


Cook Pen Shells in any way suitable for scallops or clams, or let your imagination run wild. Given the number of different textures of meat in the Pen Shell, there is no end to the possibilities. If you are lucky enough to come across them, don't pass up the chance to eat one raw- they have an impeccably clean and sweet flavor. They are certainly one of the best tasting shellfish I have found in our waters.

22 comments:

  1. I've yet to have a non-oyster mollusk from Gulf waters that was tasty. Rangia clams taste like a mouthful of mud...what other shelled critters have you tasted?

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  2. Rangias live in brackish water (sometimes very brackish), so it is usually necessary to depurate them- that is, allow them to purge. This may be accomplished in two ways: Either fill a cooler with strained seawater (from the beach or faster moving bay areas), dump in the rangias, leave the cooler in a cool place, and wait for about a day, or put the rangias in a metal basket with a lid, and suspend the basket in continously moving seawater for about a day. This method I believe was used by indigenous inhabitants of the area. The latter is the best method, but alas the most inconvenient, especially if you don't live right near the water.

    On the other hand, one may shuck the rangia, and leave the meats to soak in their own liquor for a couple of days (adding water if necessary to cover the meats). This works pretty well.

    As for other critters, the only shelled beast that I was not immediately smitten with is the mud shrimp (which is not technically a shrimp of course). I enjoy eating angel wings, clams, mussels (hooked mussels are the best; ribbed mussels very unpredictable), slipper shells, scallops, cockles, barnacles, hermit crabs, coquinas, dosinias, periwinkles, stout razor clams, horn shells, jacknife clams, whelks, and of course those creatures I have already written about. I have yet to eat our local sea urchins, sea hares, and a few other animals that are usually only found in southern texas waters. I would wager that there are easily two or three dozen more shelled critters that would be quite good to eat, but alas the time always slips away, and I never seem to quite get around to eating everything- though I'm trying.

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  3. Hi Professor fish head, first of all I love your blog, I think it's great to enjoy wild caught cuisine.-- I was wondering if you could send me a picture of the pen shell pearls you've found? I'm a student down at Florida Gulf Coast University and I'm doing a project on the ability of pen shells to produce pearls. Thanks, Matt Gamel
    mrgamel@eagle.fgcu.edu

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  4. It sounds like you have an amazing clamming partner. Are you going to go out again this Christmas? If so, please post pictures and descriptions of what all you found!

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  5. Thanks for your article. Today Oct 21, 2011 we were walking along the Treasure Island Beach behind our apartment when we noticed all these shells washed up on the beach. Upon inspection we found that they were alive so we gathered up 33 of them. We bagan to invesitgate as to what they were and contacted a state of Florida agency and they were then identified as Pen Shells. We used this article to help us prepare them. They were delicious. We were happy for our find. Everyone else just walked by them as if they were trash, but it turned out to be our Treasure Island treasure.

    Thanks.

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    1. I just found one of the Pen Shells today from Treasure Island. I am so glad I took it home to eat. It was delicious!

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  6. P.S. We did find about eight small pearls.

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  7. Anonymous-

    Very happy to hear of your find, and even happier that the article helped you out with cooking! Difficult to beat a pen shell in terms of taste.

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  8. Hi, just found your blog after finding an in tact, yet open pen shell (just the shell, nothing inside) yesterday (ironically, on treasure island beach as a previous poster mentioned). Today the shell closed and we were trying to figure out why and if there is anyway to open it again without damaging the shell. Any insight you have would be great!

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  9. Hi, just found your blog after finding an in tact, yet open pen shell (just the shell, nothing inside) yesterday (ironically, on treasure island beach as a previous poster mentioned). Today the shell closed and we were trying to figure out why and if there is anyway to open it again without damaging the shell. Any insight you have would be great!

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  10. Hello,
    This is indeed a fantastic resource. Thank you for making this publicly available.

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  11. Thanks for the info! Went to beach to find a zillion of these washing up on shore after tropical storm debbie..Shucked them on right on the beach and found about 6 lil black pearls! Going to cook them up scampi stlye in the PM !!

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  12. Thanks for the info found a shell on devou banks off of sea brook south Carolina ! Been diving a long time and beach walking a long time and had never seen such an amazing shell!

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  13. Thank you all of your post on here are great. Now I have more fun stuff to research.

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  14. Very nice! Had a business trip to Tampa, my first 5 minutes on the beach i saw one of these things about 20 feet from the water. I couldn't believe that is was just sitting there undisturbed among all the activity. I picked it up thinking it was just an empty shell when lo and behold it contained an animal! I took it back to the hotel heated it enough to get it to open and then steamed it the rest of the way. I only ate the muscle bc the rest looked like something for a more adventurous person than me. Uber-tasty!

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  15. Thank you so much for this post. I looked everywhere for ways to cook this stuff I see on the beach every day.

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  16. I recently came across pen shell in South Florida but the shell is different than what you have pictured. The shell I see here is rugged and somewhat spiny looking.

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  17. I have eaten these, they are better than any other shell fish I have tried. here is an easy way to open them with out breaking the shell. just put in your cooler on ice. it will open enough for you to cut the adductor muscle on one side with a fillet knife. run the knife in against the inside of the shell in a scraping motion to cut as close as possible to shell to get all you can. It will open easily now and you can get the other side and search for pearls. The mussel looks like a large scallop. I have had some as big as my fist. I usually slice them 1/4 thick, lightly saute in butter and a little garlic...... superb!

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  18. i make picture frames from the shells its tidios work and need good cutters

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  19. I love this. We have been scalloping for years in North Florida but never thought to eat these things. I must have seen hundreds in the bay and thought they were worthless. My next trip is in 3 weeks. I am going to eat these and drink beer till I am fat and happy! Thank you for the insight!

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