Happy as a Clam?

With the fall season, there are some traditional culinary events to which we all look forward. Of course, there's Thanksgiving and all that goes with it. For the kids, there's the candy bonanza of Halloween. Fall squashes, pumpkin pies, apple cider, tailgate parties, and haunted houses are all annual fall events that give us one last breath of the outdoors before the onset of cabin fever. But, I think one of my favorite treats of the fall culinary season is the mass availability of clambakes. I love those mollusks and the outdoor fun of the last picnic of the season. There is nothing like a clambake to make me "happy as a clam." In point of fact, this uniquely American description of the joyful condition is actually an abbreviation of a slightly wordier bit of wisdom, but one that makes a good deal more sense. The actual phrase, as it was used in the 1830s, was "happy as a clam at high tide," with high tide being the time of the lunar cycle when the clam was safely under water, protected from the rakes of those who would otherwise gather them on the tidal flats.

Many area restaurants offer "clambakes" at this time of year, but, in my mind, a real clambake has to be outdoors (and maybe even in crummy weather). There's something in the event, as you wait for the steam to rise from the kettles and savor that warming sip of broth, that just can't be duplicated in a restaurant dining room. While my mind is probably playing tricks on me, somehow, everything even tastes better on the paper plates. That is the way that clambakes were meant to be served: outdoors, in picnic fashion.

The Native Americans were enjoying clambakes long before the pilgrims arrived. Indeed, Indian "wampum," the Native American currency, was made of beads carved from clamshells. Because of this fact, for many years, "clams" was a slang reference for money. It is thought that the first Thanksgiving most likely resembled more of a clambake than a turkey roast. Clams, mussels, and fish were plentiful in the area and were an important part of the diet. But, of course, there were no propane-fueled steamers. Those bakes were done in the traditional fashion, a technique that is still enjoyed along the Atlantic coast, particularly in New England.

The traditional clambake began with the digging of a shallow pit in the seashore sand. A large bonfire was constructed, interspersing layers of rock with driftwood. Once the wood had burned down to embers, and the rocks were hot, a layer of kelp was placed over the pit, followed by the clambake food: typically lobsters, clams, mussels, sweet potatoes, and corn. The food was followed by another layer of kelp. The pit was then covered with animal skins. The heat from the rocks would cause the seaweed to gently steam the food. After an hour or two, the pit was uncovered and the feast would begin. The same methods are still in popular use except that the food is now placed in large wire steaming baskets and the pit is covered with tarps. The food is succulent - the intermixing of the flavors is accented by the fresh brininess of the seaweed.

The Cleveland version of the clambake is somewhat different. Usually chicken is substituted for lobster, more out of cost consideration than anything else, and, typically, the chicken has been grilled rather than steamed. The clams themselves, while steamed, are not cooked in a pit, but in huge pots. With a spigot at the bottom of the pots - and the addition of stock, onions, carrots and celery - there is the added benefit of hot clam broth. And, more likely than not, the clams themselves are also different.

More and more, the clams that we buy are a product of aquaculture. In the same way that "farmers" raise the bulk of commercial catfish, salmon, and shrimp, so too are they raising clams. Most certainly, there is some benefit realized in cultivated clam beds: more control over diet, better monitoring of potential disease and pollution issues, and a more predictable harvest. Of course, wild clams are still available and, while their taste may be superior to the cultivated varieties, there is usually more concern over sand as well as what these bottom-feeders have recently eaten. The age-old adage of only eating clams in a month with an "r" had much less to do with summer shipment concerns than it did with summer's near shore algae, red tide, and bacterial issues.

There are over 2,000 varieties of clams found in the wild, including both salt and freshwater varieties (although saltwater calms are far superior for the purpose of consumption). Razor clams, with their long rectangular shells, are so named because of their similarity in appearance to a straight razor. Their availability is limited and they are found on the West Coast. The soft-shell clam, which does not completely close its bivalve shell due to its protruding neck, is usually found in the tidal shallows of New England. The most frequent variety seen in our area is the quahog, an intrinsically saltwater clam generally raised in commercial farms. The quahog is further divided into classes, based primarily on size. The smallest are referred to as "little necks," clams slightly larger as "middle necks," and those larger still as "top necks." Beyond the top necks are cherrystones and, lastly, chowder clams. Because clams become tougher as their size increases, the ideal sizes for steaming are little necks, middle necks, and top necks. Both the cherrystone and the chowder clam are best used in making a rich, creamy clam chowder.

With a serving size of twelve to sixteen medium-sized quahogs, clams are very low in saturated fat, but high in cholesterol. They are surprisingly rich in many vitamins and minerals, including: iron, manganese, phosphorous, potassium, B-12, and C. Clams are also a good source of niacin, zinc, and riboflavin. Additionally, they are very low in carbohydrates and high in protein. All of this nutritional information, of course, is before you dip the little morsels in melted butter, the preferred way of consuming them.

Clams are easily prepared and, although they can be baked (as in Clams Casino) or breaded and deep-fried (the Howard Johnson signature standby), the customary method of preparing them is simply to steam them. Because they are bottom-feeders, before preparing clams, it is best to scrub the shells under running water to remove any residual sand. Although commercially raised clams tend to have reduced grit and sand inside the clam itself, the scrubbed clams can be soaked briefly in cold water with a tablespoon of cornstarch to help remove any internal sand. As a rule of thumb, any clams that are open before cooking (and do not close when touched) should be discarded. Likewise, if a clam does not open when steamed, it should also be discarded.

Stove Top Steamed Clams

4 Dozen middle neck clams (1 dozen per person), scrubbed
1 Cup dry vermouth
1 Clove garlic, crushed
2 Ribs celery
A grind of pepper
Juice and rind of 1/2 lemon
1/4 Cup melted butter

To avoid unopened clams due to overcrowding the pot, it is better to use a shallow, large diameter pan than a deep, narrow pot.

Place all ingredients (except clams) in pan. Add the clams, cover tightly, and place on high heat. Since there is minimal liquid, it should come to a boil rapidly. It is best not to check on the progress, as that allows the steam to escape (and it is the steam from the liquid which does the cooking)! Allow to steam 5 minutes, then vigorously shake the pot to distribute the cooking juices throughout. Allow to steam another 5 minutes and serve immediately with crusty French bread, warm drawn butter, and lemon wedges.

The cooking juices may be reserved, after being strained through a coffee filter, for use in preparing clam chowder.

Read More on Chef Geoff
Volume 2, Issue 21, Posted 2:02 PM, 10.04.06