Churbuck.com is about to enter clamming season. As soon as the temps fall a bit and the clam cops remove the closure signs from my favorite spots, it’s wader-and-rake time for some hunting of the tasty bivalves. Let me pen my appreciation to the steamer, Mya Arenaria, aka the soft-shelled clam or the steamer.
The steamer is so dubbed for the popular method of cooking them in a pot with an inch of water. The clam is thus rendered edible, and after the diner pulls the clam from its shell, skins the siphon or neck from its leathery (insert tasteless reference to prophylactics here), the clam is dunked in a cup of warm grey clam broth (derived from the steaming water), then molten butter before being dropped, Roman-grape style, into one’s open mouth. The steamer is staple fare in ye Olde New England Clam Bake, where it accompanies lobsters, ears of corn and spicy Portuguese sausage in what has to be the single best contribution to the global cuisine that Cape Cod has ever made.
If you don’t steam the soft-shelled clam, then there aren’t a lot of options available to the intrepid diner. Unlike their hard-shelled friends the quahog or oyster, M. Arenaria cannot be eaten raw on the half-shell. The shell is too fragile, the clam is too â€¦.disorganized, and aside from assorted fish and sea gulls, few creatures would go out of their way to eat a raw steamer.
This all changed in the summer of 1916 in the coastal town of Ipswich, north of Boston, when “Chubby” Woodman decided to batter some local steamers and deep fry them at his seafood restaurant.
I have never made the pilgrimage to Woodman’s. Nor am I OCD enough to get on the road and go on a fried clam spree, but I have eaten a lot of fried clams, and even have broken through and learned the arcane art of frying them myself. I know what I like and I know what I know. And this is it â€¦ for fried belly clams, not their rubber-band bastard cousins, the Howard Johnson’s fried clam strip.
Fried Clam Recipe:
Shuck a lot of steamers. Good luck. This is not easy nor quick. It has been said that Ipswich clams are preferable to Cape Cod clams because they are dug from mud, not sand, and therefore not as gritty as the Cape. I can attest that a sandy fried clam is a very bad thing; something a ruminant animal that eats stones to help it macerate its food might appreciate, but a guaranteed buzz killer when one sees one’s dinner guests crunching their bicuspids on grit. There are various ways to reduce sand and grit. Soaking with corn meal which irritates the clams in the bucket and forces them to cycle a lot of water through their siphons; and scrubbing, which every cookbook recipe suggests for any clam-based recipe but which is never followed in my household. Sometimes the clams are sandy, sometimes they aren’t. Anyway, shucking is boring, but get a couple beers, a sharp knife, a good buddy, and a sunny afternoon, and you can turn a bucket of steamers into a bowl of naked clams in about an hour. The secret: cut the siphons off instead of trying to skin the necks. Neck skinning was a deal breaker during my education until an Alaska Bureau of Seafood website (of all places) said to just get rid the necks.
Soak the steamers. Some recipes call for soaking in milk. Others don’t mention soaking at all. I rinse them under a lot of running water in a colander, then let them sit in a bowl in the fridge until it’s game time.
Dip and batter. Not a lot of debate here. Dip them in evaporated milk (I always screw up and confused evaporated with condensed, but evaporated is the stuff you want) then dip them in a mixture of cake flour and yellow corn flour. That’s corn flour not corn meal. Corn meal is good for de-sanding clams, corn flour is harder to find and I can only get it from the local hippy organic food store.
Fry. Deep frying equipment is a big barrier to entry. Let’s assume you have a deep fryer (I do thanks to Cousin Pete), put clean oil into it. It’s all about the oil. I use peanut which I buy in big plastic jerry cans from BJ’s. Crank the temperature to like 450 degrees, get it wicked hot, and get ready to start dipping and battering, assembly line style. Fry the clams in small batches. Too many clams drops the oil temperature and causes all sorts of problems ranging from overcooked clams, over-oily clams (can you spell Lipitor?), and a general wad of deep-fried nastiness. I do no more than 18 at a time.
Serve: Out of the oil, onto a paper towel or folded brown paper bag for some oil absorption, then onto the plate where a wedge of lemon and a little tartar sauce (mayo mixed with sweet pickle hot dog relish) awaits.
Let me declare that some of my efforts with home made fried clams have been successful, but more often than not, disappointing. The biggest thrill is sitting before a piping hot plate of very fresh clams and declaring, “This would have cost us $20 bucks at a restaurant.”
Fried clams are very, very expensive. Seriously. I just spent a week on Martha’s Vineyard within eyesight of a very, very good clam shack, The Bite, one of my favorites but, man, very expensive. I think a large order of clams will run you over $30!
Here my list of good fried clam joints. The secret is look for clam shacks such as The Bite. Fried clams are best enjoyed outdoors, seaside.
- The Bite: Menemsha. My personal favorite. Fresh, the “clam plate” is the way to go. Expensive. But best ambiance and extremely well cooked clams.
- Golden Boy, Route 28, Yarmouth, MA. Great place in an old fast-food joint. Very clean oil and good dependable cooking skills. Some experts point out that it takes a very accomplished fry cook to pull off a decent fried clam and therefore to avoid clam shacks in the early summer when the college help is getting trained. Places like The Bite and Golden Boy are family owned and seem to have the same experts behind the fryolator.
- Sagamore Inn, Sagamore, Mass. Near the Cape Cod Canal. Great old-time place, but lots of churn in the kitchen over the last decade make it hit or miss. They do a decent fried clam.
- Ray’s â€“ Rye, New Hampshire: fried clams of my childhood. One of the quintessential clam shacks of all time.
- Mattakeese Wharf: seasonal restaurant on Barnstable Harbor. Good to great.
- Legal Seafood: around the state. I just did the fried clams at the Logan Airport location â€“ not the best venue for an otherwise great restaurant. Verdict? Overcooked, little rubber-bandish.
Some other resources:
New York Times: Fried Clam Pilgrimage