A bowl of steamed clams set out on the table is one of the most inviting signs of summer. Even if I am miles from the shore, the taste of fresh clams, with their sea-air perfume and briny sweetness, will transport me there immediately, the clackety-clack of their shells conjuring up memories of picnics on the beach and afternoons spent on a boat or in a chair at the water's edge.
There are many delectable fruits of the sea but clams are my favorite because they are so easy to prepare, especially the littlest ones: no shucking, peeling, deveining or claw-cracking required. A splash or two of liquid in which to steam them open -- beer or dry white wine will do fine -- an optional sprinkle of herbs and spices, and your meal is ready in less than 15 minutes.
Yet I know a lot of people who consider clams to be restaurant food, not something you fiddle with at home, and they argue that clams are messy, difficult to clean or not completely safe. Clams do require a good scrubbing, and some may require a soaking, but not much more. And yes, you have to take care when selecting clams, especially if you are going to serve them raw.
The only complicated thing about clams, really, is sorting out which is which. Although there are many species of clams, the types available in most markets fall into one of two categories: hard-shell or soft-shell.
Among the most common East Coast soft-shells is the species Mya arenaria, also called the long-necked clam. Its shell is thin, compared with the hard-shell clam, and can be pulled apart easily. Soft-shells do not close as tightly as hard-shells so they tend to harbor sand and grit, which can easily be removed by soaking the clams in salted water before cooking them. The smallest ones, known in the Northeast as steamers, are the tenderest and are usually served steamed with butter for dipping. They are recognizable for the siphon that protrudes from the side of the shell. Soft-shell clams are also the starting point for Ipswich clams, breaded and fried and sold at shacks along the New England coast.
Elongated razor clams -- six to seven inches -- are another common soft-shell variety. They are not as appreciated as they ought to be, in my opinion, especially on the East Coast, where they are used as bait for crabs. As a girl I used to dig for them with my Italian friends in waters off the Adriatic coast. We steamed the clams and tossed them with cooked pasta and olive oil. I remember them being deliciously sweet and chewy-tender. The late food authority James Beard, who grew up in Oregon and was a fan of razor clams, described them as "unsurpassed in flavor and texture."
Here in the mid-Atlantic, most of the clams we see are hard-shells. Littlenecks, topnecks, middlenecks, cherrystones and quahogs (also known as chowder clams) are all the same species, Mercenaria mercenaria, just at different stages of growth. The largest, quahogs, are up to six inches in width. Their tough meat is best chopped up for chowder or chopped and mixed into batter for fritters.
Cherrystones, about three inches wide, and topnecks, about 21/2 inches wide, are generally served raw on the half-shell, while middlenecks, slightly smaller at about 2 to 21/2 inches wide, are considered the ideal size for clams casino or other recipes that call for stuffing and baking. The medium-size clams are also excellent for steaming.
The smallest, most tender hard-shells available in the area, littlenecks, are also the most expensive, ranging from about 28 cents to 35 cents apiece. Whole Foods Market labels them "pasta necks, " presumably because, with their sweet meat and briny liquor, they make an excellent sauce for pasta.
Some markets, including the Maine Avenue fish markets in Southwest Washington and some large Asian supermarkets, carry a larger variety of hard-shells, among them a rather intimidating-looking one known as a blood clam, popular in Asian and Latin American cooking. It's larger than a littleneck, more oblong in shape and jet black in color with white marks and pronounced ridges. Inside, the clam and its juices are a deep, muddy red.
Many of the small hard-shell clams sold in the Washington area are farm-raised on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland, says Timothy Parsons of Cherrystone Aqua-Farms, in Cheriton, Va. (The larger clams are still harvested from the wild, since it makes little sense for clam farmers to wait for clams to reach cherrystone or chowder size since they command higher prices when they are smaller.)
It takes two to three years for hard-shell clams to reach littleneck size, Parsons says. Once seeded, the baby clams are raised in a controlled environment for the first three to four months, when they are most sensitive to changes in water temperature and other factors. Then they are transferred to the Chesapeake Bay and left to feed and grow naturally. At harvest time they are hand-raked, graded, bagged and shipped.
Clams are popular in many cuisines, from Chinese stir-fries to Spanish tapas. In summer, I toss littlenecks in a large aluminum pan with a generous splash of olive oil, wine or Champagne, garlic or shallots, maybe some herbs or diced tomatoes, and place the pan on the grate of a hot grill. As the clams open, I remove them with tongs to a serving bowl, pour over the pan juices, and serve them with grilled bread. If the weather is not cooperating, I put the pan in a hot oven and roast them instead.
Naturally, in my Italian American opinion, nothing compares to a dish of pasta with fresh clams, which, when properly made, has the power to transport you straight to the Bay of Naples. The rule here, is the simpler the better. I have seen or tasted versions that have called for onions (in one case, caramelized!), celery, lemon zest, whipping cream or, worse, mayonnaise. For the perfect dish of pasta with clams you need only: extra-virgin olive oil, minced garlic, dry white wine, hot pepper, parsley and the clams. Anything else, even tomatoes, is extraneous, though I know some (including some Neapolitans) who would disagree.
And forget trying to substitute canned clams -- they change the dish completely. Besides, the authentic version is just as easy to make. Try it, and you'll see just what I mean. See you on the water.
Grilled Clams With Sparkling Wine and Pancetta
4 to 6 servings
I prefer to make this recipe on an outdoor charcoal grill to enhance the subtle smokiness of the pancetta. But during cool or rainy weather, I make it in a hot oven.
For a less fancy variation, substitute bacon and beer (pale ale is a good choice) for the pancetta and Champagne or other sparkling wine and omit the rosemary and black pepper.
Serve with thick slices of bread drizzled with olive oil and toasted on the grill.
For the clams:
4 ounces (about 2/3 cup) diced pancetta
1/2 cup diced shallots (about 2 bulbs)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 sprig fresh rosemary
6 dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed under cool running water
1 cup sparkling wine
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the bread:
12 thick slices country bread
Extra-virgin olive oil
For the clams: Prepare a charcoal grill or preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
In a large roasting pan, toss together the pancetta, shallots, oil and rosemary sprig. Place the pan on the grill or in the oven and cook just until the shallots are slightly softened and the pancetta begins to sizzle, about 5 minutes. Carefully dump the clams in the pan, add the wine and a generous amount of pepper and toss again. Close the lid on the grill or return the pan to the oven and cook, using a spoon to stir the clams occasionally, until the clams open. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the clams to a serving bowl. Remove and discard the rosemary and any clams that do not open. Pour the pan juices over the clams.
For the bread: Brush a little oil on both sides of each slice of bread. Grill or broil the bread, turning once, until lightly browned and the edges are slightly charred.
Immediately serve the clams with the bread to sop up the juices.
Per serving: 677 calories, 24 gm protein, 44 gm carbohydrates, 41 gm fat, 47 mg cholesterol, 9 gm saturated fat, 948 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber
Pasta With Clams
The key to this simple dish is to remember that the fewer ingredients you use, the more the briny flavor of the clams will come through. Be sure to stop cooking the pasta when it is still slightly underdone to ensure that it can still absorb some of the wonderful juices from the clam sauce.
1 pound linguine or spaghettini (may substitute similar shaped pasta)
1/4 to 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, finely chopped
2 small dried red chili peppers, crumbled, or to taste
1 cup dry white wine
48 littleneck clams, scrubbed under cool running water
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (optional)
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until almost cooked through. Drain the pasta.
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil, garlic, parsley and chili peppers just until the garlic starts to sizzle. (Do not let the garlic brown or it will become bitter.)
Increase the heat to medium-high, add the wine and clams and toss to combine. Cover the pan and cook until the clams open. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the clams to a bowl as they open; cover to keep warm. Remove and discard any clams that do not open.
Remove the pan from the heat, taste the sauce remaining in the pan and, if desired, season with salt to taste. Add the drained pasta to the pan, toss gently to coat, return to medium heat and cook for a minute or two until the pasta has absorbed some of the sauce. If desired, add the butter and toss until it melts. Divide the pasta among individual bowls and top each with about a dozen clams. If any sauce remains in the pan, spoon it over the pasta and clams. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 616 calories, 20 gm protein, 87 gm carbohydrates, 16 gm fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 36 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber
Vietnamese Black Bean Clams
Fermented black beans are used in Vietnamese dishes that have their roots in Chinese cuisine. As in this aromatic dish, they are often used in conjunction with hot chili peppers and Thai basil, recognizable by its oval leaves, purple-tinted stems and subtle licorice fragrance. Serve with a mound of steamed rice.
From "Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table," by Mai Pham (Harper Collins, 2001).
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth or water
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
2 teaspoons minced ginger root
11/2 teaspoons fermented black beans*, rinsed briefly
6 Thai chili peppers or 1 serrano chili pepper, seeded and cut into slivers, or to taste
About 2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves, preferably Thai basil*
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
48 littleneck clams, cleaned
In a small bowl or measuring glass, combine the cornstarch and broth or water. Set aside.
In a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until hot but not smoking. Add the garlic, ginger, beans, chili peppers and half the basil and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the oyster sauce and the clams and stir several times to combine. Stir the cornstarch mixture to recombine then add it to the wok. Cover and cook until the clams open. Remove and discard any clams that do not open. Add the remaining basil to the clams and toss. Transfer the clams to individual plates. Spoon any sauce remaining in the wok over the clams. Serve immediately.
*NOTE: Fermented black beans and Thai basil are available at Asian grocery stores.
Ingredients too variable for meaningful analysis
Domenica Marchetti last wrote for Food about green beans.
The key to this classic: Less is more. See recipe on Page 4