Razors and little necks and steamers, OH MY!
There are over two thousand identified species in the wonderful world of clams. These ancient bi-valve mollusks (meaning they have two shells connected via a single hinge) generally fall into two major categories: hard shell and soft shell. In keeping up with the bivalent theme of clam classification here, I can tell you that I have but two clam memories that connect my one heart and my four tear ducts.
The first takes place lakeside in Western Massachusetts at sunrise and involves a dear uncle and steamed cherry stones; and, the second, happened canal side in Venice at sunset with a cherubic toddler and veraci clams in a ginger broth.
Picnics on Benedict Pond (part of the Beartown Mountain State Park in the town of Monterey) and steamed clams were Fourth of July staples of my childhood. By edict from my patriarchal Uncle John – a product of the Great Depression who believed you could neither be too early to score the best spot in the joint, nor ever have too much food – the several bushels of steamers he scrubbed and soaked in cornmeal on July 3rd always served as the opening salvo to the spread of burgers and Italian sausages, potato salads and deviled eggs, and watermelon slices and red, white and blue popsicles that followed.
The summer I was 21, I helped him load his huge aluminum clam steamer, two lawn chairs, a thermos of coffee (statute of limitations permits me to admit that it was laced with his homemade grappa) and the clams in back of a truck when it was still dark. He had bad knees so he drew me a map of the exact location to where I was to scurry, set the steamer over the Coleman stove and crank it. We added the clams to the pot, sat in the creaky chairs holding Styrofoam cups of his Coffee Royale concoction, and watched the sun rise over the pond, talking about the lives behind him and ahead of me and waiting for the clams to release their grip on their shells. The memory is as clear and fresh as steamed clams dipped in melted butter that’s been laced with lemon juice.
My second clam recollection is a bit saucier.
My mother-in-law for her 60th birthday wanted to see Venice before it sank. So about 20 of us – my kids, then 4-years and 15-months old, included – made the late-May journey that culminated with a many, many coursed celebratory dinner in the wisteria covered back terrace at Trattoria Corte Sconta, an off-the-beaten-path place renowned for its seafood. As a softly rounded, toe-headed child, my daughter Eliza was lapping up the attention the offspring-obsessed, dark-haired Italians were showering on her, so much so that she was waving and saying “Ciao Bella!” to most passersby even if they hadn’t noticed her first. At Trattoria Corte Sconta, she was also enjoying immensely the clams in ginger broth. As the waiter went to take the bowl he erroneously thought she was finished with, she held up one hand to stop him, and used the other to commandeer an empty shell as a vessel for the last bit of broth, and sucked the liquid down with a very loud slurp.
Since that time, I’ve been testing out clam sauce combinations that will make Eliza as pleased as she was on that night. Granted, she’s now a slender, sullen tween who is, in fact, pickier than she was that night in Venice. But combining garlic, butter, white wine and a sprinkle of red chili pepper flakes typically foots the bill for a weeknight spaghetti alla vongole that she’ll suck down with the same abandon.
Clams are one of those low-guilt kinds of food. Concerning the waistline, they are very low in fat. Concerning the coastline, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch has designated farmed Cockles, Littlenecks, Manila, Razor, Steamers, Mirugai, Horseneck, Long Necks and Jumbo clams as among the best choices for sustainable seafood because almost 90 percent of the clams consumed in North America are farmed with very little negative affect on the environment.
Lately I’ve moved my clam inspiration a bit westward from Italy, pairing grilled clams with Spanish chorizo with its smoked pimenton undertones, garlic, red onion, parsley, lemon and a husky piece of crusty bread. The sauce preparation comes together in the time for unshucked clams to cook on the grill.
Eliza’s not too keen on this one, but no matter, all the more for me.
Spanish-inspired grilled clams with chorizo
It’s important to pull the clams off the grill as soon as they pop wide open. If they cook too long, they will be chewy. Hold each one steady as you pull it off the grill, trying to get as much of the clam juices into the serving bowl as possible.
2-pound bag of farm-raised little neck clams (mine came from Plantation Creek, Virginia)
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 ounces Spanish chorizo, minced
2 Tablespoons minced red onion
1 Tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
2 Tablespoons minced parsley
Salt and Pepper to taste
Slices of crusty bread
Preheat the grill to high
Scrub the clams in cold water and dry them slightly.
Place clams on the grill for 6-8 minutes.
In a large sauté pan, melt the butter. Add chorizo, onions and garlic. Cook for 2 minutes and remove from the heat. Stir in lemon zest, lemon juice, and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste.
As soon as the clams open, carefully lift them off the grill into a large bowl. Discard any clams that don’t open after 10 minutes on the grill.
Toss the clams with the sauce and serve immediately.