Here’s Ishmael, from “Moby-Dick”:
“But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small, juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. . . . We despatched it with great expedition.”
Sweet friends, this is an excellent time of year for clamming. The Mercenaria mercenaria in our waters are particularly clean right now. And with the recent closing of the mysterious Crystal Room, home of that old Clam Pies sign, my curiosity about this local delicacy has been piqued. As the days shorten and become cooler, clam pie sounds more appealing to me than clams on the half shell or simple grilled clams.
In researching clam pies, I have come across many interesting recipes. Some are vague and include a few shortcuts, such as powdered poultry seasoning or granulated garlic. Some call for a double crust, some suggest just a top crust. Some locals believe the clams and potatoes should be chunky, some believe in grinding all the ingredients together. Some recipes include bacon or salt pork, and tomatoes. When I attempt my first clam pie, I’m going to go for chunky, in a homemade two-crust pie shell, with the addition of fresh parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.
The hard-shell clam, or quahog (that’s pronounced KO-hog) is the most important food clam of the Atlantic coast, with the peak season being June through September. (Around these parts, people traditionally just call them “hard clams” and leave it at that.) There are basically three well-known categories for classifying hard clams. Little Necks are small, one to two inches, and are usually the most expensive because they are the sweetest and most tender; these are best on the half shell, but grilling, steaming, and frying are all good preparations. Cherrystones are two to three inches, and can be eaten raw and are great broiled, chopped for chowders, or baked into dishes like clams casino. Chowder clams are any clams over three and a half inches; these are almost always cooked and chopped (although some hard-core clam-diggers love to eat the big orange foot part like sushi).
If you want to get technical — and, oh, you know I do! — there are also the topnecks, a market term for the size between cherrystones and chowder clams, and seed clams, those under one inch, which you have no business taking out of the water anyway. Before they are classified as seed clams, the babies are actually hermaphrodites. Clams of Little Neck size are usually about 3 years old and some of the larger quahogs can be as old as 30.
The name quahog or quahaug comes from the Narragansett Indian word “poquahock.” New England Native Americans used clam shells as ornaments and tools. The prized purple-splash shells were most valued as wampum, or money. The Indians are also credited with inventing what we now know and love as the clambake: layers of shellfish, potatoes, and corn cooked over a bed of rocks covered with steaming seaweed, right on the beach.
Clams are bivalve mollusks, invertebrates with shells divided into two pieces called valves. These are joined by hinge joints and two adductor muscles to open and close. The kind of clams we are talking about inhabit subtidal regions of bays and estuaries. They basically cruise around on one foot, syphoning delicious phytoplankton, zooplankton, and other gourmet detrital material.
You can buy clams from any reputable fish shop out here, and they will usually be fresh and inexpensive. But half the fun, to me, is the clamming experience. Like surfcasting for striped bass and blues, or finding a secret patch of wineberries, clamming is primal and zenlike at the same time. You are harvesting the freshest, wildest food that Mother Nature has to offer out here, and it’s free. With some patience, a little practice, alone or with some buddies, there are few more satisfying culinary forays into nature than quiet clamming. (Just make sure you have gotten your shellfishing permit from East Hampton Town Hall before you break out the rake.)
Once you’ve got your clams, storage and preparation are fairly simple. Clams can be kept in a plastic bag with holes poked into it in the refrigerator for a few days. They are quite happy just hanging out in their shells, living in their own little juices. It’s not hard to tell if they’ve gone over the hill, by the way: If they either are hanging open or they do not close tightly when touched, discard them; same goes if they do not open upon steaming or grilling.
Soft clams (a k a, steamers, or soft-shell clams, and their cousins the razor clams) are a bit more tedious to clean because they hang around with their mouths open. They require soakings in fresh water — during which they spit out sand and silt — and even after cooking and removal from the shells, generally benefit from a swirl in their own broth. Hard shells, on the other hand, usually only require a good scrub on the outside, because they keep their valves so tightly shut.
Three years ago, I took a six-month shellfish course through the East Hampton Town Shellfish Hatchery. We grew our own algae, learned about spawning and field growout. We seeded oyster, scallop, and clam beds. I may or may not have gotten permission to maybe or maybe not seed my own clam bed in Napeague Bay. If I did, they may or may not be ready for harvesting in 2012 or 2013. Only about 20 percent of seeded clams survive, and clams can take four to five years to reach legal size. When the time comes, it will be a great thrill to try my own clam babies that began with algae on my south-facing windowsill. That is, if in fact I did any of this. . . .
In the meantime, here are some clam recipes for all to enjoy.
Spicy Lemony Clams with Pasta
This is a recipe I found in The New York Times many years ago; it was adapted from the Lobster Club.
1 lb. spaghetti, linguine, or other pasta
1/2 cup olive oil
8 cloves garlic, sliced
36 Little Neck clams, well scrubbed
3/4 cup dry white wine
1 Tbsp. hot pepper flakes
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
Fill a large stockpot with water and add 1 tablespoon salt. Cook pasta until al dente, then drain.
In a large skillet over medium-low heat, heat olive oil. Add garlic, and sauté until translucent, about two minutes. Add clams and wine and cover immediately. Raise heat to medium-high. Shake pan often, and check clams after four minutes. If any have opened, transfer them to a bowl so they don’t overcook. Simmer remaining clams until all have opened.
In large serving bowl, combine clams and broth from pan. Add pepper flakes, lemon zest, lemon juice, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Add pasta and toss. Great served in soup bowls with toasted sourdough bread alongside.
Gramma Merrill’s Amagansett Clam Pie
I found this recipe on Cooks.com. It called for granulated garlic, but I think you will want to substitute a teaspoon of fresh-chopped garlic.
Makes two nine-inch pies.
2 dozen shucked chowder clams, chopped
1 large onion, diced
2 large potatoes, grated
1 stick butter, melted
3/4 cup flour
2 eggs, beaten
2 Tbsp. parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp. fresh-chopped garlic
2 prepared pie crusts
In a large bowl, combine clams, onions, and potatoes. Add the other ingredients and blend until pourable and thick. Place one crust each in two Pyrex glass pie pans. Pour in fillings and bake at 375 degrees for approximately one hour, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.