Clammering for Clams

It had been months since I last supped on clams, probably when I was vacationing in the Pacific Northwest last summer. Thing is, there are plenty of clams right in my own back yard -- and I've been long ignoring them.

Littlenecks swimming in a pungent briny broth. (Kim O'Donnel)

Here, on the Atlantic side of North America, there are softshells as well as hardshells to choose from. For the purposes of my supper this weekend, I went the hardshell route.

Also known as quahogs (pronounced KO-hogs), hard clams were important to Native American tribes, such as the Algonquins, who also used the shell's beads for wampum, a system of negotiations and contracts.

Littlenecks are the smallest of the lot, averaging about two inches in diameter. They are known to be tender and sweeter in flavor. Next in size are the cherrystones, followed by large or chowder clams.

I was inspired to break my clam fast after catching a recipe for Asian-flavored steamers and noodles in the current issue of Food and Wine magazine. Other than the bivalves themselves, I already had most of the ingredients on hand -- Chinese black bean sauce, garlic, ginger, udon noodles -- to pull together this slurpy-sounding dish.

Although clams are found in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean -- from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico -- they've also proven to be a successful model for aquaculture (and a move in the sustainable direction). In fact, my netted bag of littlenecks came from a clam farm on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

If you've been put off by the imagined hard work involved to cook clams (or any other bivalve, for that matter), you can stop fretting. All the work is in the prep -- chopping and organizing your mise en place. Otherwise, clams are a breeze to steam and take less than 10 minutes to cook.

A few clammy notes to keep in mind:

After purchasing, keep clams in fridge in a bowl, covered with a damp wet towel. No ice, please.

When ready to use, give them a good rinse to remove grit and sand on the outside.

Throw away cracked or broken clams or any with shells that are ajar.

This is a matter of opinion, depending on who you talk to, but here's my take: Any cooked clams that remain closed shut should be removed and not pried open.

The dish below is just one variation on steamed clams with a pile of noodles. If you don't like sake or don't feel like buying a bottle, don't bother. White wine, vermouth or what the heck, a bottle of ale, would do the trick. Same thing goes for the watercress: think quick-cooking greens as substitutes, such as Swiss chard, arugula or spinach.

I must confess, this dish is so good I prepared it two nights in a row. Okay, okay, I had leftover clams that needed to be used, but I was so enchanted by the briny broth chatting it up with the ginger and scallions, the pungent black bean and oyster sauces hitting all the right notes, and those clams, which were easily coaxed out of their shells, even with chopsticks.

Two can make this dish on a weeknight in an hour; otherwise, wait til the weekend and invite over a pack of fellow clammers.

Sizzled Clams With Udon Noodles and Watercress
From February 2007 issue of Food and Wine

7 ounces dried udon noodles (approximately 2 100-gram bundles)
¼ cup canola oil
2 dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed and rinsed
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger (a pice about the length of your thumb)
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley
1 ½ teaspoons Chinese black bean sauce
¼ cup sake (alternatively: white wine or vermouth)
1 bunch watercress, thick stems discarded (Plan B: 2 Swiss chard leaves, stem removed, coarsely chopped
1 ½ tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 or more scallions, roots removed, thinly sliced
Chile oil, for drizzling

In a medium saucepan of boiling water, cook udon until nearly tender, about 5 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold water and toss with 1 teaspoon of canola oil.

Meanwhile, heat a wok until very hot. Add 2 tablespoons of canola oil and when it starts smoking, add clams. Cover wok and cook for 2 minutes. Add ginger, garlic, parsley and black bean sauce and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add sake, cover and cook until clams open, 5-8 minutes longer. Pour clams and juices into a large bowl.

Return wok to high heat and add remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Add watercress and stir-fry until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Add udon, oyster sauce and butter, cook until udon are evenly coated.

Return clams and juices to wok and stir to combine.

Transfer clam-noodle mixture to bowl, garnish with scallions and drizzle with chile oil. Serve immediately.

Makes 2 entree-size servings or 4 starter-size servings. Recipe may be doubled.

By Kim ODonnel |  January 16, 2007; 10:26 AM ET Dinner Tonight , Seafood
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Sorry for the (slightly) off-topic post, although the clams do sound delicious. Kim, did you read the Economist's recent article on why ethical food (organic, fair-trade, farmer's market) is bad? When I read it, I thought to myself, Kim will stick-up to defend local produce and organic farming methods!

Posted by: Rita | January 16, 2007 1:19 PM

Gaaahhh!!! Who at the Post writes your heds? (Shame on that person if he or she is a member of the copy desk!) There's no such word as "clammering" -- I daresay the word the headline writer meant to use is "clamoring." The pun is just as effective when the word is spelled properly! Doesn't the Post believe in spellcheck -- or even the good old-fashioned dictionary?

Posted by: kap | January 16, 2007 1:49 PM

Kap: Actually it was my doing, and it was supposed to be a play on words -- "to clammer" is to gather clams, by digging. Sigh.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | January 16, 2007 1:57 PM

LOVELY recipe. Where'd you procure these bivalves of clammy deliciousness? I'm usually quite put off by the shellfish available in supermarkets (to say nothing of the expense!)... did you hit up M. Slavin & Sons? Have you ever tried the seafood market behind the Crisp & Juicy on Lee Hwy (providing it's still there)?

I must also confess I am clam-spoiled, due to growing up eating clams freshly dug out of the brackish waters of the sound near Holly Ridge/Topsail Beach, NC. My grandpa and my dad would dig with the big clam rake, my sister and I would follow along after them, feeling for the dropped ones with our fingers.

As for "to clammer," I've never heard that one... "clammer" in my experience has always meant "one who clams." But that doens't mean it's the only way!

Posted by: Divine Ms. K, Arlington | January 16, 2007 3:12 PM

my wife & I grew up in RI, then to ME and a certain percentage of this article is simply wrong---sounds like someone who isn't especially knowledgeable. Where he ever got THAT pronunciation for Quohaugs is dubious. and the smallest guys, thin fragile shells are steamers, not cherry stones. Emeril uses that same pronunciation and he is said to be of Portugese extraction.

Posted by: Allen Thomas | January 16, 2007 4:46 PM

Allen, you must have missed the part where Kim said she'd be sticking with hardshell clams for this recipe and article... the smallest size hardshell clams are definitely called littlenecks, as Kim said. Steamers are a whole different thing.

And FWIW, the pronunciation Kim gave for quahog is the main pronunciation listed in Webster's dictionary (and indeed the one I have heard the most), though KWO-hawg or KWA-hawg is a listed variant.

Posted by: Divine Ms K | January 16, 2007 5:04 PM

Moronic headline; idiot description of the clam size nomemclature. One shouldn't write of things one knows nothing about. Based on the errors in the article, I would not bother with the recipe

Posted by: binky | January 16, 2007 8:39 PM

Rita, can you give a link to the article you describe? I'd love to read it, (I can't believe it says what you are saying!...)

Posted by: chrishpl | January 16, 2007 9:13 PM

wow, such anger. apparently anonymity allows people to say things that should really be left inside their heads. This is just a food blog - it's not worth the vitriol. Perhaps one of you angry writers could expound upon the differences in clam terminology as you go down the Atlantic coast. Or perhaps anyone who speaks different than you or believes different than you is just inconsequential and deserving of your rude and peevish thoughts?

Posted by: jm | January 17, 2007 12:22 AM

Posted by: jm | January 17, 2007 12:25 AM

Everyone, please repeat: "Food blog. Relaxing break in your day. No anger."

Kim -- Any replacement for a wok? I just moved from an electric kitchen, and I haven't bought one yet to use on this gas range.

Posted by: BSM | January 17, 2007 11:41 AM

I can't link to the article, 'cause it's subscriber only Economist biz, but if you do have a subscription you can get at it here or in the Dec 7 Issue of the venerable magazine.

Posted by: Rita | January 17, 2007 12:26 PM

I wouldn't recommend the seafood market behind the Crisp & Juicy on Lee Hwy -- the two times I tried that place my questions about the seafood were met with looks of disdain and unhelpful answers. Now I live in Southern Md. so I have access to several [friendly] seafood markets.

I'm jazzed to try this recipe. Sounds yummy with the Swiss chard.

Posted by: Rachel | January 17, 2007 1:01 PM

BSM: Thanks for reminding folks that there is no anger in this blog soup. Re: a wok replacement: Do you have a deep heavy-bottomed skillet? You want something deeper, about 2 inches, so that you can toss stuff around without it flying away. But I must say, for years I went without a wok, and then last summer, I got one, and baby, do I love it. I'm using it about once a week these days.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | January 17, 2007 2:56 PM

Hey stinky binky, where's your WaPo chat? Oh, that's right, you don't have one! Get outta here!

Posted by: Kim for President! | January 17, 2007 8:42 PM

regardless of rather the receipe is correct or the clams are the incorrect size the outcome sounds delicious.and any good cook most always add a little to the recipe themselves.I do.

Posted by: millie j | January 18, 2007 12:48 PM

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