The Happy Clam

Clams just might be the ocean’s perfect food. Simple, self-contained little animals that don’t put up too much of a fight. They’re luscious and salty, cheap by seafood standards and super versatile in the kitchen. Enter any restaurant with seafood on the menu, and you are nearly guaranteed to find a dish featuring clams. Little necks, the smallest legal clam allowed to be harvested, top necks, cherrystones and chowders, the bigger, older versions of little necks, get served grilled, steamed, baked, in soups, paella, and over beds of garlicky, buttery pasta.

The clam’s habitat is not nearly so elegant. Living buried in the mud flats of the saltwater coastline, the clam has a pretty monotonous lifestyle. The art of catching these clams, the how and the when, varies like grandmothers’ remedies for upset stomachs. Each clamdigger has her own science: refined, considered, tested and revised, but essentially, each just plucks a stationary animal from the mud. A friend of my dad’s, said of this skill, “Going clamming is showing the world that you can’t do anything else.”

Where fishing requires knowledge of nets or lures and navigation and wind and an understanding of the movement of fish, clamming requires two feet and a bucket. A license from the governing town is in order to pick clams legally and the work is easier if sped along by a rake with which to dig into the mud. Better still is a boat to take you to water too deep to stand up in. At bare minimum, however, two feet and a bucket will suffice. Its wise to check the tide table too, or you might be swimming home.

Most people procure their clams from the fish market. Preparation will require a clam knife and some dexterity if you plan to keep the clam meat whole, or a freezer if the meat is getting chopped and aesthetics don’t require whole clams, as in the baked clam recipe that follows. Make sure the clams close when you touch them. If they don’t, they’re dead. Don’t buy them. Find a new fish market.

Clams on the Halfshell
Ingredients
Little neck clams: the smaller the better, I figure 6 per person
One lemon, sliced into wedges
Cocktail sauce*

Procedure
Open clams using a clam knife. To do this, place the hinge of the clam in the joint where your thumb and forefinger meet. Holding the knife firmly with your other hand, slip the blade (not the end of the knife) in between the two shells of the clam. This is not easy, be patient and use the blade like a hinge to “pop” off the shell. Once you have the knife inside, slide it along the inside of the shells. There is a muscle that needs to be cut on the top and bottom of the shell so you can slide the meat off the shell into your mouth. Discard the top shell, and decorate with lemon juice and cocktail sauce as you like. For presentation, I like to slice several lemons into rounds, covering a plate in a single layer, then I cover the lemons in crushed ice. As you open each clam, nestle the shell into the ice.

*Cocktail sauce is a very personal thing. I’ve heard that there are several commercially available jarred sauces, but I’d never buy one. Instead, I make a ketchup-based cocktail sauce, measuring the ingredients by eye, until they look like enough.

Into a hearty squirt of ketchup, I stir in lots of horseradish, Worchester sauce, Tabasco or other hot sauce, and a pinch of sugar, all to taste.

Barbequed Clams
This is a good use for the clams that are too big to be eaten on the half shell but not quite big enough to justify chopping up. Also, there’s no opening involved and those guests who are squeamish about eating raw clams can still enjoy the purity of flavor offered here.

Ingredients
Cherrystone Clams, again I figure 6 per person then add a few to that number
Melted Butter, flavored with crushed garlic cloves to taste

Procedure
Over a hot barbeque, line up the scrubbed, clean clams on the grill. Close the lid. In about 8 minutes, you’ll hear the spitting of clams popping open. Open the grill and pull off the clams that have opened enough to pull the meat out on a fork without having to open the shells with your hands. Close lid and repeat procedure until all of the clams have popped. Serve hot in a big bowl. Dip clams into garlic butter.

Baked Clams
This is my dad’s recipe, but like the cocktail sauce, its never actually been written down, so it varies each time he makes them. Here’s the basic recipe. Feel free to change the proportions according to your mood. What’s the worst that could happen?

Ingredients
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, minced
1 green bell pepper, minced
2 stalks celery, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons thyme
1 Tablespoon red pepper flakes
12-15 cherrystone clams, chopped well, half of the shells retained (the best way to open the clams for this recipe is to place them in the freezer in a bowl. They’ll open in the cold and the freezing process tenderizes the meat. When you’re ready to cook, defrost them, scrape meat into a food processor and chop fine)
1 cup white wine
1 cup seasoned breadcrumbs, approximately
½ cup parsley, chopped (we’ve used basil, cilantro, really any fresh green herb will work)

Procedure
Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in the bottom of a heavy skillet. Add onions, bell pepper and celery. Sautee until the onions are translucent. Add garlic, thyme and red pepper flakes. Cook until aromatic. Add chopped clams and wine. Cook until the liquid reduces by about half. Add breadcrumbs until the mixture begins to hold together in a paste. If you add too many breadcrumbs, you’ll begin to lose the flavor of the clams. Too little and the filling spills out of the clamshell in the oven. Luckily there’s a big window of “just right.” When you find it, mix in the parsley, or other green herbs and remove from heat.

Meanwhile, rinse the retained clamshells to remove any grit that may have been on the outside. One by one, fill shells with clam mixture from skillet. Arrange filled clamshells on a cookie sheet. Bake at 350°F about 20 minutes. The top should be browned and crispy. Serve hot with lemon wedges, preferably in a backyard in late July, or anytime you want to feel like that’s where you are.