Clams

PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA/SYLED BY CATRINE KELTY

Right around the Fourth of July, the traditional kickoff to summer at our Cape house, my brother-in-law begins to bug me about making my lemony stuffed quahogs. 

They’re his absolute favorite: He’d eat them every day if I made them, and he talks frequently about buying a custom Airstream to outfit with a quahog-stuffing kitchen, setting us up to “make our million” at the Woods Hole ferry terminal—a pipe dream if I’ve ever heard one. In his mind, we’d have them packed in boxes, frozen and ready to go for weekenders headed to the Vineyard. We’d also sell them hot and crisp out of the oven to eat standing up with a cold beer, a lemon wedge and a little wooden spork.

Since broiling and toiling inside an aluminum tube is not how I’d ever want to spend a summer, I almost always beg off the subject. “Too much work,” I’ll say. “Too many hurdles to jump.” But the Airstream idea still comes up every year, and by July 4th, I’ll usually acquiesce and make the first “stuffies” of the season, full of toasted country breadcrumbs, lemon zest and fresh basil from the garden.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but these stuffies are so beloved in my husband’s family that they were actually instrumental to my acceptance into it; to quote my mother-in-law, “You were looking good, but those quahogs really sealed the deal.” I had improvised the Italian-inflected recipe on one of my first Cape visits early in our relationship—bright and citrusy, fragrant with slivered basil and chive flowers scattered on top before serving. Maybe that’s what did it?

Whatever it was, now they’re all hooked and I’ve made stuffed quahogs for every summertime special occasion since then, going on 15 years now. I’ve included the recipe here; they take about an hour to make, plus clamming if you’re so inclined, but I promise they’re worth it. Possibly even life-changing.

So what do lemony stuffed quahogs have to do with clam chowder? Well, making a good stuffie is a time-consuming process and a collaborative effort—in our house anyway—which begins with a trip to the salt pond to dig for clams. My husband and his brother will lead the charge, armed with the shellfishing license, an old rusty clam rake and the floating basket, returning every time with a bigger catch than I ever care to stuff. So we end up with extra clams for grilling with herbed butter, slurping raw with cocktail sauce, or to steam up for chowder.

A classic restaurant-style New England clam chowder, the kind most often served by the seashore alongside a lobster roll and a box of fried clams, can be hit-or-miss. Order it in the wrong place and you could end up with a bowl of thick, gloppy glue, capable of holding its spoon straight up in the air. But when it’s done right—and by “right” I mean creamy yet brothy, full of clams and tender new potatoes, some fragrant aromatics, fresh garden herbs, redolent of salt pork or pancetta—it’s a marvel and one of my favorite dishes to make in the summer, especially as a main course following a platter of stuffies. By letting the potatoes simmer slowly in the broth and cream, their starch thickens the liquid naturally without any added flour, making a rich soup that somehow still feels light.

When corn season begins in late July, and the kernels are crisp and sweet, I’ll make a variation on this theme: a corn-and-clam chowder relying more on clam broth than cream, topped off with some grilled sausages for a heartier meal. This recipe can easily be made without the meat for
a pescatarian version—just omit the bacon and sausage, use olive oil to sauté the aromatics and add a pinch of sweet Spanish pimentón de la vera for some smokiness. A crusty loaf, some flinty-dry white wine or cold IPA and a salad to round it out—this is a midsummer’s patio meal for a hot night under the stars.

A trip to your local fishmonger will yield you a few dozen littlenecks to make the recipes that follow, but if you’ve never dug your own clams I highly suggest you try it at least once in your lifetime. It’s a killer on the lower back and hamstrings but still incredibly rewarding: You’ll spend an hour or so standing in thigh-deep water, keeping cool on a hot afternoon, collecting dinner at the same time. Just be sure to contact the town clerk in advance for regulations and to get your recreational permit.

A note about local clam varieties: When I write the word “quahog,” what I mean is any sized hard-shelled clam taken from the mucky bottom of the salt ponds near our house on the south shore of the Cape. Sometimes we find clusters of really small ones, called “littlenecks,” with shells at least 1-inch thick (the smallest we can legally harvest with our town-issued permit), but it always depends on the growing season and lifecycle of the clams near us. Mostly we take
“topnecks” or “cherrystones,” which are a bit larger, slightly tougher but perfect for both stuffies and chowder, since both preparations call for steaming and chopping the clams first. Your fishmonger will be able to sell you smaller clams than you can legally gather yourself; these “countnecks” are harvested commercially, smaller than 1 inch in diameter, and best eaten raw or blasted in garlicky oil and tossed into a pile of cooked linguine, shell and all. When I’m away from the Cape, or making chowder in the off-season, I’ll buy littlenecks by the piece or grab one of those bags of mahogany clams from Long Island—they work just as well.

 

CLAMS AND CLAM BROTH

For each chowder, cook the clams in advance:

2 onions, sliced 2 bay leaves
1 carrot, chopped
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
48 littleneck clams, scrubbed well with a clean brush
(I keep one at my sink that never touches soap but cleans things like clam shells, dirty carrots or potatoes and brushes off sandy mushrooms—it’s a lifesaver)
1 lemon, halved 2 cups white wine
2 cups water

Add the first 4 ingredients to a large stockpot and layer clams on the top of the aromatics, squeeze in the juice of the lemon halves and tuck them into the mix, then pour in the liquid. Cover and bring the liquid to a boil, then lift the lid and check to see if the clams are opening. Using tongs, remove the clams as soon as they open, reserving them in a large bowl. (Since you will be reheating the clams, make sure to remove them as soon as they begin to open so as not to overcook them later; if you just want to eat these clams straight from the pot, or toss them with hot linguine, let them cook a touch longer before removing them from the heat.)

Once all the clams have opened, simmer the liquid in the stockpot an additional 5–10 minutes while the clams cool enough to handle. Pull the clam meat from the shells, reserving 12 of them in their shells for garnish, and set aside. Strain the liquid through a fine sieve lined with a coffee filter to remove any sand, then reserve, chilling everything in the fridge if not using straightaway.

Clams and broth can be cooked up to 1 day ahead.

Sarah Blackburn is a home cook, recipe developer, vegetable gardener and managing editor of Edible Boston. She can be reached at sarah@edibleboston.com