Happy as a Clam

by Mark R. Vogel

            A clam is a mollusk, one of the two main classifications of shellfish (the other being crustacean).  Mollusks are invertebrates (animals without a backbone), with soft bodies covered by a shell.  To further classify, clams are bivalves, which means they have two shells hinged together by a muscle.  OK, enough zoology.  Clams are simply good to eat and nutritious.  Three ounces of clam meat has less than one gram of fat while being high in protein, calcium and iron. 

             People are generally advised against eating raw clams.  Raw clams can contain bacteria (the most notorious being vibrio), or pollutants from the water that are destroyed during cooking.  Bacterial infection from raw clams is not commonplace but individuals with compromised immune systems should be leery.  As for me, break out the cocktail sauce, Tabasco, and lemon.  The cost is the only limiting factor in my indulgence. 

             One thing is definite:  never eat or cook a dead clam.  A clam that is already dead prior to cooking is more likely to be infected with bacteria.  Before cooking, throw away any that have slightly opened and will not close when you tap on them.  After cooking discard any that didn’t open.  Shellfish deteriorate rapidly and consuming or cooking one that is already dead is asking for trouble. 

             Store your clams in the fridge, but not in water or an airtight bag.  It is best to consume them the same day you purchase them.  Rinse clams well with a small scrub brush before cooking to eliminate the grit.  And never overcook clams or they’ll get rubbery.  The moment they open they’re done.

             The three most common hard shell clams on the East Coast, listed in increasing size are littlenecks, cherrystone, and chowder clams.  Littlenecks are ideal for clams on the half shell.  I prefer cherrystones for baked stuffed clams and clams casino.  The chowder clams are best chopped for use in soups and sauce. The most common East Coast soft shell clam is the steamer clam. To the delight of clam lovers on the East Coast and Pacific Northwest, clams are available year round.  OK, let’s make some clams.

 

CLAMS IN VEGETABLE BROTH

 

24 littleneck clams

One pint vegetable stock

One batch of scallions, chopped

Chopped parsley

Salt and pepper to taste

 

            Place the clams, stock, scallions, salt and pepper in a stockpot.  Cover and cook on medium heat until the clams open.  Sprinkle with the chopped parsley and serve.  A variation of this recipe is sautéing the scallions with some garlic in olive oil first, and then adding the stock and clams.  You can also add hot pepper if you like.  You will be left with an ample amount of juice so make sure you have some bread for dipping.

 

BAKED STUFFED CLAMS

12 cherrystone clams

2 tablespoons onion, minced

2 tablespoons red bell pepper, minced

Olive oil, as needed

2 garlic cloves, minced

½ cup breadcrumbs

1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

 
            Cook the clams in a covered skillet over medium heat until they open.  Remove them from the shells and then strain and reserve the juice.  Discard half the shells.  Chop the clams by hand or in a food processor.  Sauté the onion and pepper in the olive oil until soft.  Add garlic and sauté one minute more.  Combine the onions, peppers, and garlic, with the oil from the pan, with the bread crumbs, cheese, parsley, salt, pepper and chopped clams.  Begin adding olive oil and stirring until the mixture is visibly moist.  Don’t skimp on the olive oil or the clams will come out dry.  Mix in some of the reserved clam juice as well.  Fill the shells, sprinkle with an additional drizzle of olive oil and bake at 375 until just browned.

LINGUINE WITH CLAM SAUCE

        

             This Italian classic is a snap.  All you need to do is make your favorite homemade tomato sauce and then add whole clams.  I usually aim for a dozen clams per person.  Add the clams to the finished sauce, cover the pot, and cook at a medium heat until the clams open.  Sprinkle in an ample amount of parsley and adjust the salt and pepper to taste. 

             Some cooks like a mixture of whole and chopped clams.  You can use littlenecks for the whole ones and use a few chowder clams for the chopped.  When the chowder clams open, remove and chop the meat, and return it to the sauce.   Be mindful that the clams will release their juices during cooking.  Make sure your tomato sauce has been reduced to a suitable thickness or you will end up with a thin and watery sauce. 

             White clam sauce is nothing more than a garlic and oil sauce with clams added.  Sauté garlic and onions in a fair amount of olive oil.  Some cooks also add some butter.  Deglaze with white wine, add the clams and cook until they open.  Season at the end as you would the red sauce.  

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