Something different for dinner?
How about sauteed squid? Spaghetti sauce with mussels? Or steamed shrimp?
When it comes to preparing food such as squid, mussels or even the less exotic shrimp, many ordinary steak-and-potato cooks are intimidated by these mollusks and crustaceans that live beneath the sea.
It's enough to make biologist and amateur seafood cook Joe Conner toss his fish-shaped potholder into the air in frustration.
Instead, Conner, who teaches biology at National University in Irvine, has come up with an unusual seafood cooking class he offers throughout Orange County. The class is designed to take the mystery out of seafood cooking by taking the mystery out of the delectable creatures themselves. "There is no mystery involved," Conner says. "They (students in his class) hold and feel the shrimp. They learn that shrimp are crustaceans, related to arthropods, invertebrates with jointed feet. That they have so many legs because they use them to swim."
Under Conner's tutelage, students also learn about lobsters, clams and fish. And they get to touch and hold each subject. "It makes them feel more confident in handling seafood," he says.
In the end, after Conner the biologist has taught his students all about the tasty critters from the deep, then Conner the cook demonstrates how to prepare a simmering bouillabaisse or seafood chowder.
A new series of Conner's classes, offered by the Newport Beach Parks, Beaches and Recreation Department, will begin Oct. 2 at the Oasis Center in Corona del Mar. The class will cover crustaceans, fin fish and mollusks and will include a session on chowder recipes from around the world. Students will learn about seafood ecology and the scientific names of common delicacies. They will also learn what parts of the crustaceans, fin fish and mollusks are edible.
While the Newport Beach class is aimed at adults, Conner has offered similar cooking classes for children, including preschoolers, through the Dana Point Harbor Youth and Group Facility. There is no age limit, he says, but "you have to be able to handle a knife and a fork."
Conner's classes usually "start off with shrimp," he says. "Shrimp are the least expensive and the easiest to cook. Mollusks--including mussels, squid and clams--on the other hand, people have to warm up to," he explains. Conner recommends buying medium-size shrimp and says you should look for ones that are translucent, firm and not crushed. "And there should never be a fishy smell," he warns. "No seafood smells fishy when it is fresh."
After teaching his students all about the biology of the shrimp and how to buy fresh shrimp, Conner turns his attention to shelling and deveining. "A lot of women don't know how to devein a shrimp--and women still do the bulk of the cooking," says Conner, hastening to explain his reference to females, who make up the bulk of his classes.
As a biologist, Conner explains that it is not a vein that you are removing when you devein a shrimp. "They (his students) think you take out the part from under the shrimp, but it is the back part, the intestine . . . that you remove. You don't remove the part underneath. Deveining is just a more genteel term than removing the guts," he says.
Even in classes made up mostly of children, Conner says, students participate with enthusiasm and, in the end, are willing to eat the results of their culinary efforts. In one recent class in Dana Point, Conner taught a group of 9-year-olds to fillet and cook a trout. And in another children's class, he dissected a squid, then chopped it up and tossed it into an aromatic bouillabaisse.
Conner, who says his entire family is made up of "good cooks," began cooking when he was working on his Ph.D. at UC San Diego. "I began cooking to distract me and to overcome my phobia of flunking out of school," he says.
For information on Conner's upcoming seafood cooking class in Newport Beach, call (714) 644-3151.
Seafest continues--Newport Beach's Seafest, a series of ocean-related events held throughout the city, will continue this weekend with the Wooden Boat Festival, the Tall Ships Festival and the annual Character Boat Parade.
The third-annual wooden boat festival will be held Saturday and Sunday and will feature more than 60 classic and contemporary wooden boats plus displays, demonstrations and seminars. There'll even be a boat-building contest in which contestants must actually construct and launch a boat during a specified period of time. The event is sponsored by the Marine Division of the Newport Harbor Area Chamber of Commerce. Admission is $3. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The festival will take place at the Sea Scout Base, 1931 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach.
On Saturday, the tall ship Californian, back from a 10,000-mile voyage, will be open for tours from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., also at the Sea Scout Base. On Sunday at 1 p.m., the Californian will join other tall ships, including the Pilgrim, for an exit parade out of Newport Harbor.
Also on Sunday, the 29th annual Character Boat Parade, featuring more than 50 decorated boats, will take place from 1 to 5 p.m. in Newport Harbor.
Shearlean Duke is a regular contributor to Orange County Life. On the Waterfront appears each Saturday, covering boating life styles as well as ocean-related activities along the county's 42-mile coastline. Send information about boating-related events to: On the Waterfront, Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626. Deadline is two weeks before publication. Story ideas are also welcome.