The Pilgrims were crazy. They found clams and oysters on the New England beaches and didn't realize that these aquatic treasures were anything more than fish bait.

At least that attitude didn't last long, and for generations, sailors carried knives and bottles of cocktail sauce on board their boats and ate lunch right from the sea. Today, however, only the foolhardy would feast on potentially contaminated raw mollusks. But the luscious taste, as well as their safety, is enhanced by baking.

It is important to remember never to open mollusks until just prior to cooking to be certain of their freshness and flavor. Many mollusks will open slightly when chilled in the refrigerator. They should close up instantly when you tap the shell; discard them immediately if they do not close up "tighter than a clam." It definitely means they're not fresh and it probably means they're dead.

The next step is to scrub them hard under cold running water to remove as much clinging ocean grime as possible. I have a brush reserved for this purpose, since you certainly wouldn't want to impart the taste of floor cleaner to the delicate creatures.

While some books say that soaking mollusks in cold water sprinkled with cornmeal will rid them of residual internal grit, this is a step that can be omitted to save time.

Another timesaver is to open them by modern methods. Place them in a mixing bowl, and cover with very hot tap water. In about two minutes the shells will have relaxed to facilitate opening. Another alternative is to place them on a baking sheet in a 450-degree oven for about three minutes for the same results.

For purists who do not fear cuts or accidental amputations, the traditional brut force technique for shucking clams is to place the hinge of the clam in the palm of your hand between the thumb and index finger. Holding the clam firmly, insert a blade between the shells, and move the knife around to sever the muscle at the hinge.

For oysters, hold the mollusks so you have room to insert a thick oyster knife between the shells near the hinge, and pry the shells open. Run the knife around until you cut the muscle that holds the valves together.

The final step is the same for all methods: Free the mollusk by cutting around the muscle on the bottom shell.

Always shuck mollusks over a bowl, since the liquor that spills out is wonderful for adding to chowders or fish stocks. And if you buy mollusks already shucked, the liquor should be perfectly clear; do not eat them if it is cloudy, and sniff well for freshness since mollusks deteriorate rapidly once shucked.

Littlenecks and small cherrystones are the best local clams for baking. Soft-shell clams should only be steamed or turned into chowder.

Almost all varieties of East Coast oysters bake well and are worth the trouble, while the tiny Pacific Olympia oysters are too small for baking.

In the same way that there are people who adore chocolate ice cream and those who swear by vanilla, there are also clam people and oyster people. These toppings were developed to complement the flavors of both mollusks, and can be prepared up to two days in advance and refrigerated tightly covered. Then, simply shuck the mollusks and bake just prior to serving.

MOLLUSKS WITH RED PEPPERS

(6 servings)

24 clams or oysters, shucked

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 red bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed, and chopped

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup Italian bread crumbs

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano (or pinch of dried)

1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh basil (or pinch of dried)

1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme (or pinch of dried)

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

Shuck the clams or oysters. Place them on a baking sheet.

Melt the butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the red pepper, onion and garlic, and saute', stirring frequently, until the vegetables are soft, about 12 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the Parmesan, bread crumbs, parsley, oregano, basil, thyme, pepper and salt. Stir well to combine.

Pat the mixture on the top of the mollusks. Bake for 5 to 7 minutes at 450 degrees, or until cooked but not tough. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 127 calories, 11 gm protein, 11 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 315 mg sodium.

MOLLUSKS WITH SOUTHWESTERN PESTO

(6 servings)

24 clams or oysters

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 4-ounce can green chilies, chopped and drained

1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped

1/2 cup pine nuts

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

3/4 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

Shuck the clams or oysters. Place them on a baking sheet.

Combine the garlic, chilies, cilantro, parsley, nuts, olive oil, Parmesan, Monterey Jack, salt and pepper in a food processor fitted with the steel blade, and pure'e until smooth.

Pat the mixture on the top of the mollusks. Bake for 5 to 7 minutes at 450 degrees, or until cooked but not tough. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 273 calories, 17 gm protein, 7 gm carbohydrates, 20 gm fat, 4 gm saturated fat, 28 mg cholesterol, 364 mg sodium.

BAKED MOLLUSKS WITH CURRIED LEEKS

(6 servings)

24 clams or oysters

8 leeks

1 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon chopped chives

1 teaspoon curry powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

Shuck the clams or oysters. Place them on a baking sheet.

Trim the leeks, discarding all but 1 inch of the green tops. Split them lengthwise, rinsing them under cold water to remove any dirt. Slice them thinly, and blanch in salted water for 5 minutes. Drain well.

Combine the leeks with the cream, chives, curry, salt and pepper in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Simmer, uncovered, over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the leeks are tender and the liquid is almost evaporated.

Divide the mixture on the top of the mollusks. Bake for 5 to 7 minutes at 450 degrees, or until cooked but not tough. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 287 calories, 12 gm protein, 26 gm carbohydrates, 16 gm fat, 9 gm saturated fat, 76 mg cholesterol, 262 mg sodium.

BAKED MOLLUSKS WITH CREAMED SEAFOOD

(6 servings)

24 clams or oysters

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1/2 cup finely chopped celery

2 tablespoons flour

1/2 cup milk

2 large shrimp, peeled, deveined and chopped

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Pinch of thyme

1/4 cup crab

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Shuck the clams or oysters. Place them on a baking sheet.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and celery, and saute', stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Lower the heat to low, stir in the flour, and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Whisk in the milk, and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Add the shrimp, parsley, thyme, crab, salt and pepper, and simmer the sauce for 2 minutes.

Spoon the mixture on the top of the mollusks, and sprinkle with Parmesan. Bake for 5 to 7 minutes, or until cooked but not tough. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 136 calories, 13 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 4 gm saturated fat, 47 mg cholesterol, 365 mg sodium.

BAKED MOLLUSKS WITH BLACK BEAN SAUCE

(6 servings)

24 clams or oysters

1 tablespoon sesame oil

2 teaspoons finely grated ginger root

2 teaspoons minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/4 cup fermented black beans, rinsed and mashed

2 tablespoons white wine

1 tablespoon soy sauce

3 tablespoons chopped scallion, green and white part

Shuck the clams or oysters. Place them on a baking sheet.

Combine the remaining ingredients in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium heat.

Spoon the mixture on the top of the mollusks. Bake for 5 to 7 minutes at 450 degrees, or until cooked but not tough. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 84 calories, 9 gm protein, 4 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm fat, .4 gm saturated fat, 21 mg cholesterol, 566 mg sodium.

MOLLUSKS WITH GREEN HERB SAUCE

(6 servings)

24 clams or oysters

1 pound fresh spinach, rinsed and stemmed

4 tablespoons butter, in small pieces

2 tablespoons minced parsley

2 tablespoons chopped basil

2 tablespoons chopped chives

1 teaspoon anchovy paste

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Shuck the clams or oysters. Place them on a baking sheet.

Wilt the spinach in a hot frying pan, and drain it well. Place it in a food processor fitted with the steel blade or in a blender, along with the butter, parsley, basil, chives, anchovy paste, pepper and lemon juice. Pure'e the mixture, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.

Spoon the mixture on the top of the mollusks. Bake for 5 to 7 minutes at 450 degrees, or until cooked but not tough. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 134 calories, 11 gm protein, 5 gm carbohydrates, 9 gm fat, 5 gm saturated fat, 42 mg cholesterol, 197 mg sodium.

Ellen Brown is a Washington-based food writer and prize-winning author of "The Gourmet Gazelle Cookbook."