My brother and I both went to college in the Boston area, so over the last decade vacationing on Cape Cod has become a bit of a tradition with my parents, and a bit of a legend among our friends. (This year we had one friend cursing and swearing that they had to attend a wedding instead of crashing with us).
The story is a catchy one possibly because it's a simple one. We rent a beach house for a week, spend a few hours during the day doing our own thing, a few hours at night doing some family bonding over gin rummy or mahjong, and everything in between decimating the local crustacean population.
Thanks to the good (and slightly bemused) folks at Joe's Lobster Mart in Sandwich MA, this year we had the good fortune of chowing down on 3 types of native clams in 5 different ways.
Aw shucks, they're a little neckkid
When you have great ingredients, sometimes the best thing you can do to them is … nothing. All I did with these little necks (also called cherry stones) was to shuck them. If you're trying this at home, I highly recommend a proper clam knife and a steel mesh glove, or at least a few good thick rags so that you don't bleed too much when you stab yourself when the knife slips (and it will...I have 2 scars on my left thumb to prove it).
People tend to suck these down with some combination of salt, pepper, tobasco sauce and lemon. You'll know your clams are REALLY fresh when the lemon juice makes them wince. I personally prefer to leave them stark nekkid.
Steamers – West side
Steamers, the lobster's key partner in a New England Clambake, are oval-shaped, in contrast to the little neck's roundness. Steamers have a “foot” hanging out of their shell, and wear a sock-like protective membrane along the shell opening that needs to be removed before eating but after steaming. The foot is a great little handle for dragging the clam through melted butter when eating.
I used my basic clam and mussel steaming recipe for this dish.
Steamers – East side
You can use little necks or quahogs (also called chowder clams) for this salad / starter. Quahogs as far as I can tell are just little necks that have spent their lives in clam body building gyms. They have the same shape, colour and taste, but are the size of your palm or larger.
For this one, steam the clams in a shallow bath of just water and/or white wine (i.e. without the garlic and onions). Separately, make a dressing of chopped garlic, coriander / cilantro, spring onions / scallions, light soy sauce, a dash of sesame oil, and black pepper. (Dilute the soy sauce with a bit of water or clam juice)
When cooked, take the clams out of the steaming pan, serve up on a platter, and spoon on the dressing.
A first-time attempt, dedicated to my Dad, who's ordered this at just about every Italian restaurant we've ever been to, ever. I think this one passed his muster, although Mum makes a highly formidable version so I wasn't going to push the “so whose do you like better” issue. I was delighted with the result, at any rate, and can't wait to make it again for myself!
Full version of my Linguine “Wen-gole” recipe here.
Another first-time attempt, after years
of chugging bowls upon bowls of the stuff any time I visited Boston.
I put some leftover roasted potatoes and breakfast bacon to good use for this
one, but used way too much paprika. So the chowder was more a sandy
beige rather than the expected creamy white. Ah well. So were we, eh?
For this chowder (6-8 servings) I steamed 4.5lbs of quahogs and chopped them up for the body of the chowder. Then I steamed 1.5lbs of little necks and shelled them and served them whole in individual bowls.
Also, in place of anything that called for water, I used stock boiled down from left over lobster shells, as well as any left over liquid from steaming the clams.
Other than that, this chowder was a loose riff based on recipes from All Recipes, Cooking for Engineers, and Suite 101.
In closing, a few notes on buying clams:
- Clams live buried in the sand, so it gets everywhere. Different fishmongers soak and clean it pre-sale to various degrees. Always ask your fishmonger what kind of soaking and cleaning they need.
- If they need soaking, soak in very salty cold water and a couple of teaspoons of cornmeal for at least 2-4 hours.
- If they don't need soaking, give them a good long rinse under cold water.
- If you see any shells open (or smelling particularly fishy), tap them hard. If they don't close, they are dead clams. Junk them.