A good clam cooked well

The more I cook the more I realize I have never gone wrong with Marcella Hazan‘s cookbooks, especially my well worn and falling apart copy of  Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. On Saturday night I found myself with a lot of quahogs and about four dozen beautiful littlenecks I dug with my son on the falling tide. Littlenecks generally get opened and eaten raw on the half-shell, but I wanted a white clam sauce and some pasta so I turned to Marcella’s bible of Italian and made her version of the classic spaghettini con vongole.

The clams came from a very special spot that I won’t disclose because it’s my go-to spot for littlenecks. Quahogs are graded by size. and the most delicate and tasty are the small ones, about the size of a silver dollar, called littlenecks. A step bigger, the right size for clams casino, are cherrystones, and above them come a sort of neither here nor there middle ground that really doesn’t have a name — save perhaps “clams” — and at the high end, for stuffed quahogs or making chowder are the eponymous “chowder” clams about as big as a big man’s fist.

The smallest clams have to  be run through a steel gauge to make sure they are legal. The basket on my Ribb rake is also allegedly spaced correctly to let juveniles drop through, but I use the gauge just to be sure. Any babies get tossed into deeper water where the gulls can’t forage them and they can grow up to become chowders.

The spot is good because it is a small river — a stream really — that has a lot of water velocity with the rising and falling tide and that means the clams are fresher than the ones in stagnant water. They live in sand, not black mud, and are easy to clean and usually deliver a chewing experience without sand or grit. I also have a respect for funky clams, the kinds that give you 36 hours on the toilet or a permanent case of hepatitis. Let’s just say I don’t eat August littlenecks.

We took all we needed in 10 minutes, coming up a few times with rakes filled with six, seven littlenecks. These are not littlenecks in the picture below, but cherrystones.

We wore waders because it is April after all and waders made a day on the water a lot more enjoyable — no filling of boots, no shivering in the windchill of the speeding motorboat, the air temperature on the water in the early spring feels at least ten degrees colder than it does on land, in the yard, out of the wind. We took our littlenecks, measured them, then set off for another spot to look for bigger clams for an Easter Clams Casino and some chowder base to freeze up for the summer when there is company.

The bigger clams are a little harder to harvest, but in 15 minutes we had our limit, coming up with multiple clams on every pull of the rakes.


We packed it in, climbed back onto the boat and went for a brisk spin around Grand Island to see if Dow Clark the mechanic had success in clearing the clogged carburetor jets on the old Honda. We flew through West Bay, under the drawbridge, and past the boatyard, still in hibernation under a shroud of shrink wrap.

So the recipe? Steam the clams on high heat until the shells pop, then pluck them out and shuck them into a bowl, saving the clam juice. Saute in 6 tbsp. of olive oil about six big garlic cloves sliced very thin and a big shallot. Throw in two diced plum tomatoes, a cup of dry white wine,  two tbsps of red pepper flakes, three tbsps. of chopped parsley and reduce it down. Turn that off, boil a big pot of salted water, cook a box of thin spaghetti until it is almost done — drain, throw in the saute pan with the tomatoes, garlic, oil, etc., toss over high heat until all the liquid is evaporated. Turn off the heat. Throw in the clams and their juice, a dozen torn up basil leaves and eat. One of the better uses of four dozen littlenecks I’ve ever tried. Tomorrow – clams Casino and chowder before the Easter feast.

Days of two-part epoxy and VOCs

As the grandson of a boat builder and the great-great-grandson of a whaling captain, boats sort of go with the territory around here and verge towards a sort of floating genetic disorder that can’t be helped. With the spring peepers peeping in their vernal pools and the ospreys circling the harbor, it’s time to get ready for the season ahead.

A couple weeks ago I played hooky one morning and did the most important errand of the year — the annual renewal of the mooring permits. If I miss the March 31 deadline the mooring is lost forever. These things are arguably the single most valuable part of a Cape Cod maritime lifestyle. No mooring. No boat. Or at least, no easy boat, just a lifetime of trailers and boat ramps. Twas not always this way. Prior to the great landrush of the 1970s the locals just tossed in a mushroom anchor with a length of chain and spliced rope and buoy and that was that. Then the tragedy of the commons occurred and the regulators stepped in. I nailed three moorings. One for the motorboat, one for the sailboat, and one for the skiff.

That’s just the beginning of the ordeal. A couple weekends ago I climbed onto the big boat with a box of razor blades and cut off the white boat condom. This was like opening King Tut’s tomb. I left the hatches open for the winter air to circulate through the bilge and cabin and keep the stench of mildew down. All was well. No water in the keel well. Batteries were run down. So I hooked up a trickle charger and started the process of bringing the thing back to life.

Oh the length of the to-do list for a fleet of boats. The motorboat needs a new registration, the engine is idling weird, the steering is tight and binding. The skeg of the dinghy needs to be re-epoxied and the transom is delaminating. A block of ice trashed the stern of my scull, the Empacher and that means peeling off the deck and getting inside with some Fiberglas and resin and then going through the tedious act of filling in the gel coat on the outside of the hull. Rigging needs replacing. Winches need to be broken down, repacked and greased. Do I want to drop a few thousand on a GPS chart plotter mounted on the binnacle? Do I really need that nice Edson destroyer wheel on the motorboat? (I bought a stainless steel knock off and all is well).

Bottom paint, that great toxic mess that I’ve breathed in and out for forty years, accounting no doubt for my short term memory issues and onery children, is now easily $100 a gallon and rising. Out come the rollers. The Tyvek painters suit. My son get deputized and winds up getting so much blue on him that my other son observes that he looks like he has had carnal knowledge with a Smurf.

The dogs get paint on them. The shell driveway gets paint on it. Paint on the iPod dock. Paint everywhere.

Hands stink of paint thinner.  Making a roast chicken and realizing as it is eaten that the dominant spice is not thyme but ablative bottom paint and thinner. Going into business meetings on Monday with green fingers is a very professional statement. Trashing every pair of pants I own with two part epoxy and gel coat repair goo means I look perpetually trashed.

Then there are matters mechanical. A decade of use on the old Honda four-stroke and its multiple trips to the local mechanic who shakes his head and advises me “that engine doesn’t owe you anything, time for another.” Well another costs $7,000 and I’d rather invest that in other things: like mortgages and taxes. So back the old Honda goes for another round of organ transplants and resuscitation.  If it was a human there would be picketers standing around it urging me and the mechanic to pull the plug.

Aside from the mechanics, I do most of the work myself. Boat yards are evil expensive, so when it comes time to  change propeller shaft anodes, repack stuffing boxes, sand and varnish rub rails — I do it and I don’t mind it. I fire up the Grundig YachtBoy radio, tune into a Sox pre-season game, and listen to Joe Castiglione call a game that doesn’t matter far away in Fort Myers. Son comes out and wants to listen to his weird electronic trance music. We bicker. I feel old……

Dinghy needs a new rub rail and the transom is delaminating. Need clamps. Need WEST epoxy. Need new NiCADS for the cordless drill. Weekends are an endless round of trips to the hardware store, marine supply, mechanic and PC for yet another Amazon order…..

But it’s spring and I am back in the water. The rowing machine is about to fall silent and the scull will live again. The motorboat is back on its mooring, bobbing off of the landing, and the big sloop awaits the completion of the town dock project so the riggers can drop the mast into the step and send me on my way.

Now to find that sail cover and get it to the local canvas guy …..

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