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After a long, long wait, it’s finally time to clam up | WHIDBEY RECIPES
We wait and wait for too many months it seems, for our short but sweet summer to begin; then when it suddenly appears, everything seems to happen at once.
Fresh rhubarb, ready to be plucked; Washington-grown asparagus standing stiffly on every produce shelf; fragrant, juicy strawberries straight from nearby farms; sweet ripe cherries one day away from the tree into your kitchen; and for we who live near salty waters, some of the finest, freshest seafood in the world ready to be trapped, dug, hooked or netted, and on your table in less time than it takes to find your clam shovel.
I’ve been eating Puget Sound clams since my earliest memories, so it’s easy for me to forget that there are people out there who are new not only to cooking and eating clams, but particularly to digging them. I’ve had several requests recently for information about both the digging and the cooking, so perhaps it’s time, once again, for “the clam column.”
Because of the very low tides typical in June, July and into August, many clam diggers are out on the tide flats looking for these tasty mollusks. I wonder, as I watch them industriously digging into the fragrant muck, how many are disappointed in the results when they put their pot of cooked clams on the table.
It all depends, you see, on what you put in that bucket when you’re on the beach; do you have butter clams, horse clams, cockles, littlenecks? It does make a difference.
For the typical and, in my estimation, most desirable clam feast, you’ll want to have littleneck clams (aka “steamers”), always recognizable by their concentric growth rings crossing radiating ribs on the shells. You’ll also hear these referred to as “manilas” or “Japanese,” which is one variety of littleneck, and which are distinguishable from our native littlenecks by their darker shell markings and usually darker necks.
In the same sandy, water-filled hole where you’re diligently digging for littlenecks, you may also be turning up butter clams, usually larger, white and without the double set of ridges on the shell. Butter clams have only the growth lines that follow the shell contour. They are also edible and tasty, but unless they’re quite small, they’re very chewy if steamed.
Butter clams, however, make outstanding clam chowder, and the small to mediums are also delicious if opened, seasoned and/or battered, and placed clam side down on the grill, briefly.
And then we have our ubiquitous, ugly old friend, the horse clam.
Considerably larger, with a more oblong-shaped shell, you can always tell a “horse” (aka “gaper”) by the protruding neck that can never fully retract into the shell, unlike littlenecks and butters, which completely “clam up” when disturbed. Horse clams make excellent bait in crab traps, but are very chewy for typical clam feast consumption. They are strongly flavored, however, and if properly cleaned and chopped or ground up, stand up well in chowder.
Cockles are unmistakable, thanks to their resemblance to the Shell Oil logo and deeply ridged shell. They’re easily dug, easily spotted, but not easily chewed. Many people find the flavor too strong, and there’s not a lot of meat once you’ve cleaned the cockle, but once again, it can be tasty in a robust chowder.
There are other clams out there, but we’ve covered the most prevalent and preferable, except for one more, ugliest of all clams, the geoduck (pronounced gooeyduck).
Next to a steaming pot of fresh littlenecks, however, geoduck is my personal favorite. Difficult to spot (people often dig horse clams thinking they’re harvesting geoduck), and even harder to dig, geoducks are prized by dedicated clam diggers. Read the horse clam description above and imagine the beast doubled, even tripled in size, and you have a geoduck.
And, believe me, once you’ve been ’duck digging, you’ve had the ultimate clam digging experience.
I’ve already taken too much space rambling on about my beloved clams, and won’t even mention the most heavenly seafood in the world also waiting to be harvested and enjoyed, right now, Dungeness crab. We’ll save that for another column and now I will “Clam up!”
Where to begin — I think most readers probably already know how to deal with putting those littlenecks on the table. They are fragrant, delicate and a major treat (and don’t forget the resulting broth which is jokingly referred to as an aphrodisiac). But if you’re really new to it all, and need some suggestions for steamed clams, email me and I’ll get them to you. Today, let’s consider some other clammy delights.
LINGUINE WITH TOMATO BASIL CLAM SAUCE
1 lb. Roma (plum) tomatoes
3 dozen littleneck clams, well scrubbed
¼ cup water
½ lb. linguine
3-6 garlic cloves, minced (to your taste; I use max.)
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
½ t. dried red pepper flakes
½ cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
In a saucepan of boiling water, blanch the tomatoes for 10 seconds (do them in batches); transfer to a bowl of ice water. Peel, seed and dice tomatoes.
In a large heavy kettle, steam clams, covered, in the ¼ cup water over med.-high heat 5-10 min., transferring them as they open to a bowl. Discard any that do not open after 10 min. Remove kettle from heat; reserve broth.
In a large pot, bring 4 qts. salted water to a boil, drop in linguine and cook until al dente. Drain linguine in a colander.
While the linguine is cooking, remove the meat from the largest of the clams, (hopefully about
2 dozen, discard shells), and pulse clam meat in a food processor until just coarsely chopped (don’t turn it into mush). Stir chopped clams, tomatoes, garlic, oil and red pepper flakes into the reserved clam broth; simmer 2-3 min. Add linguine, basil, remaining dozen or so clams in their shells and any liquid in the clam bowl; toss well with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Serve in bowls, topped with basil and, if you wish, you can also sprinkle generously with freshly grated Parmesano Reggiano. Serves 4.
For this recipe, you can use just about any of the clams talked about in the column above, provided that you clean out the soft belly parts and use primarily the firmer parts (except for littlenecks; go ahead and use the whole clam). This recipe came from a seasoned “cooking on the boat” lady who spends (along with her husband) many weeks every summer cruising Puget Sound. Simple to make; simply delicious.
1½-2 cups ground clams, with their juice
1½ cups flour
1 T. melted butter
3 eggs, beaten
2 t. baking powder
Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
Sour cream and minced chives or green onions, for garnish
Combine the above ingredients, except sour cream and chives/onions, mixing well. Drop into a preheated non-stick skillet or onto a griddle. Cook until golden brown; flip and brown on other side. Don’t overcook; have the skillet/griddle hot enough to brown quickly but not burn. Serve hot, with sour cream and chives or minced green onion and a tossed green salad.
We often have some steamed clams left over after a clam feed, which is no problem. Pluck the clams from their shells, refrigerate and decide what you want to do with them the next day (chowder? fritters? pasta with clams? etc.) or use them in a special dish, such as this soufflé.
CLAM AND CORN SOUFFLÉ
1¼ cup crumbled soda crackers
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup milk
1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed but not cooked
2 T. minced onion
½ t. Worcestershire sauce
1 cup (more if you have them) minced cooked clams, with about a ¼ cup of their broth
3 T. melted butter
¼ t. salt, or to taste (remember, the clams are naturally salty)
½ cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
Beat together milk and eggs; add crumbled crackers and soak for 15 min. Add all remaining ingredients except cheese. Mix gently; turn into a 1½ qt. casserole and refrigerate until ready to bake. (Can be made at home and taken to party or to boat and baked.)
When ready to bake, place casserole in a preheated 300-degree oven and bake, uncovered, for 50 min. Sprinkle cheese on top and continue baking just until cheese melts, about 10 min. Allow to sit f-or a few minutes before serving.