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.
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.
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