Tuesday, May 15, 2018

North Carolina Steamed Clams

Lately, it seems like it has been all about the oyster.  Everyone is talking about the different types of oysters out there, usually while eating a dozen oysters at a raw bar.  Kumamotos, Blue Points, Chincoteagues.   The statement that that oysters are in vogue could be taken both figuratively, and, literally.  After all, there recently was an article about oysters from Canada's Prince Edward Island on the Vogue website.   But, as oysters enjoy their moment in the spotlight, one needs to remember that they are not the only shellfish that can produce a tasty dish.

There is the clam.  It can provide just as much briny flavor as an oyster when eaten raw.  When I worked in the kitchen of a seafood restaurant, I used to shuck both clams and oysters.  I found myself enjoying the taste and texture of clams. However, here is what separates clams from oysters: in my humble opinion, a bowl of steamed clams far surpasses just about anything you can do with oysters.  I enjoy steamed clams more than I do oysters Rockefeller.  I will eat a bowl of those clams with much more abandon than I will a plate of fried oysters.  The only preparation of oysters (apart from raw oysters) than can out perform a bowl of steamed clams, again in my humble opinion, is a properly prepared oyster po-boy.  And not everyone can prepare a proper po-boy.

As I stood at a seafood market with a bag of middleneck clams in my hand, I got to wondering what  it takes to bring that bag of clams to a consumer.   This is where the Internet can actually be a good thing.  It can connect people like me -- who have an interest in how clams are cultivated -- with those who want to share their day-to-day experience harvesting those clams.  Some of those who fall in the latter category, and who also happen to work at the University of Maine, have even established their own "Clam Cam." The website contains a wide range of videos showing hardworking individuals harvesting clams in Maine (work that I think is probably the same for individuals harvesting clams in Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina).  Needless to say, it involves a lot of digging in the tidal sand or mud flats to pry the bivalves loose from their hiding spots.   (Commercial clammers use mechanical dredging offshore, but that is far less interesting to me with the exception of the possible environmental impact of tearing up the seabed, but that is a subject for a future post.)

With all of this in mind, I turn to the recipe.  I had in my mind of a curry recipe, but, that recipe was for mussels.  I had neither mussels nor other important ingredients for that curry, such as turmeric or lemongrass. So, I began looking for an alternative that would work with clams.  I found a recipe for Littleneck Clams Steamed in Vinho Verde.  It is a great recipe from Abraham Conlon, the chef at Fat Rice in Chicago.  Chef Conlon used Vinho Verde, which is a great white style of Portuguese wine.  The problem is that I did not have bottle of that wine handy.  However, I was in the Outer Banks and I bought a bottle of the Three White Wine from the Childress Vineyards.  The wine is a blend of Viognier, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio.  The description of that wine got my attention: grapefruit and lemongrass with an almond finish.  I thought these taste elements would work well with this recipe.  Hence, the substitution of the North Carolina wine turned the recipe into North Carolina Steamed Clams.

Recipe adapted from Food & Wine
Serves 4

100 littleneck or middleneck clams
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 fresh long hot red chiles, stemmed, seeded 
     and thinly sliced crosswise
1 cup of white wine from North Carolina
1/3 cup minced garlic
1 cup of minced cilantro
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, plus lemon wedges for serving
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1.  Prepare the base.  In a large pot, heat the olive oil until shimmering.  Add the garlic and chiles and cook over high heat, stirring until fragrant and the garlic is just starting to brown, about 2 to 3 minutes.  Add the clams and wine.  Cover and steam until the clams just open, about 8 minutes.  Using tongs or a slotted spoon, transfer the clams to a baking sheet, discard any that done open.

2.  Finish the sauce.  Boil the cooking liquid over high heat until reduced by half, about 7 minutes.  Stir in the minced cilantro and lemon juice.  Add the clams and season lightly with salt and white pepper.   Toss well.  Transfer to a deep platter and serve with lemon wedges.  


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