Music: Acid Tongue – Jenny Lewis
Growing up on the Great South Bay of Long Island, nothing defined my childhood more than the beach, the boat and the waterways of my home. In the summers when I was young one of my favorite culinary adventures was to go clamming with my cousin off Squaw Island. For anyone who does not know what Squaw Island is, well it is essentially a little mound of earth that is only visible during low tide about a ten-minute ride southwest from the Amityville Cut just past Snake Channel. For anyone who doesn’t know where Snake Channel is, well it’s just west of the Tobay Beach marina. Hang a right at The Four Corners and…OK, none of you know where any of this is but I can attest that is some of the most beautiful stretches of local beaches, marshes and bay I have ever seen.
When I was young, my cousin Fred and I would wake up at dawn (or as he will recount, I would oversleep…) and head out to Squaw Island to go clamming, timing it with the tide so that it would be dead low when we arrived. We would haul up the engine of his flat bottom Boston Whaler throw anchor and wade towards the shore. Wadding towards the shallow waters we dodged razor clams and blue claw crabs so not to get our bare feet sliced before we even got started. As the morning sun would slowly crawl overhead, gulls and terns would dive in the water to catch fish and crabs. The only sound would be our sloshing through the ankle deep water stopping occasionally to dance in place, feeling around for those hard lumps in the sand. Once you felt a clam there was sure to be more around and the frantic dig for the bed begins. It had been at least 15 years since I had headed out to Squaw Island to go clamming. Last weekend, in a perfect marriage of beautiful summer weather, a north wind and a serendipitous trip to the beach, I was transported to my childhood on the bay one more time. By chance, we anchored at a spot where I felt that familiar hard lump in the sand while walking along a shallow stretch of beach. I bent down and dug up a very large clam. Instinctually I kept digging and sure enough there was a whole bed. Before long we were throwing back the big ones (chowder clams too tough for this recipe) and filling a hold in the boat with seawater to bring our treasures home.
The recipe for my baked clams does not come from any fancy seafood cookbook or crab shack lore. It’s straight from the pages of the New McCall’s Cook Book which I have sworn by again and again. The New McCall’s is about as straightforward and unpretentious as it gets. Now, we can get into a whole thing about the different ways to make baked clams. This recipe is technically for clams oregano which is a chopped clam recipe. You can also get baked clams as whole clams with the gratin on top. Some people (myself included) swear by the whole clam because it is what it claims to be; a baked clam. You are not getting a shell full of breadcrumbs and butter as filler with little bits of rubbery over cooked morsels. So why would I offer up this recipe? Because it’s excellent, does not call for much breadcrumb and one simple trick I will teach you: take out the sh*t.
If you are using clams pulled right out of the water like I did, you want to perform a little cleansing before you even get started. If you buy clams from a market or fishmonger…skip ahead. Take a large bucket and fill it with seawater. Add the clams and sift in about ¾ of a cup of corn meal. The clams will think this is food and they will suck it into their shells. Once they realize, “Hey! This isn’t plankton, this is cornmeal!” They will angrily spit it out. They don’t really learn too quick so they will keep doing this for about an hour cleaning themselves out of sand and other particles that may have been sitting in the shell.
(This recipe calls for 2 dozen clams I used about 3.5 dozen and some were quite large so we ended up doubling the recipe. Be careful if you do so, too much butter = wet greasy clam.)
What you will need for the baked clams:2 dozen clams in shells, well scrubbed. (Cherrystone or small quahogs) ¾ cup butter melted 1 cup (a little less) dry bread crumbs 2 cloves garlic finely minced 2 tbls chopped fresh parsley 2 tbls grated Parmesan Cheese 4 tsp fresh lemon juice 1 tsp dry oregano 1/8 tsp liquid hot sauce or hot pepper Lemon Wedges for garnish
- In a large kettle or steamer pot bring ½ an inch of water to a boil. Add the clams; simmer, covered until they steam open about 8-10 minutes. WATCH THEM. There is nothing worse than an over cooked clam it tastes like rubber bands. Once they open they are good to go. Remember these will bake in the oven further. Also look out for ones that do not open after 10-12 minutes. These were dead to begin with and cannot be eaten.
- While clams are steaming prep the mixture: Combine butter with breadcrumbs, lemon juice, parsley, oregano, garlic, Parmesan and hot pepper sauce.
- Remove clams from the pot and place in a strainer to cool until you can handle them. Tear off the top shell and discard, scoop out clam with a clam knife or sharp flat knife and save bottom shell. (I save the clam juice from the shell and the water in the pot for stock. It will make a great clam sauce base for pasta or soup.)
- Once clams are removed it is time to cut out the sh*t. Here is the trick I promised you. Most, if any restaurants will NOT go through the trouble of doing this, and it’s the reason why this recipe is good. When you eat a whole baked clam you get the whole baked clam mixing it’s last dinner with yours. When you take the little morsel and lay it on a cutting board you will see a portion of its lower “body” that is full of a dark green “stuff.” CUT THIS OUT. It is quite simply the clam’s poop.
- Once you have cut that nasty out, coarsely chop your clean and beautiful clams.
- Mix the chopped clam with the other ingredients in a large bowl and begin spooning approx. 2 tbls of the mixture into each save shell. Don’t over stuff them since they will not cook through if there is too much piled in.
- Arrange the clams on a baking sheet and broil for about 5-8 minutes or until golden brown on top.
We served this with fresh summer corn and pesto from basil picked in the garden; a perfect summer meal.