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Sunday, July 6, 2008

Clams Go Grilling

Just when you think you know everything about a person, an unseen facet of their life reveals itself. My good friend, accomplished cook, and popular cookbook writer, Valerie Peterson has just revealed herself as a fellow shellfishaholic. In today's New York Times she writes a charming remembrance about summer days at the beach, picnicking and clamming at Sherwood Island State Park in Connecticut in "Digging for Summer".

Sadly this is a remembrance of things past because Sherwood Island where she and her family used to gather now prohibits clamming because of pollution. There are alternative beaches to try but her personal experiences speak eloquently about why environmental protection is not just an abstract notion.

Reading Valerie's description of clams cooked at the beach after being gathered by her cousins is a near-perfect scene: packing the steamers into "coffee pots with a couple of inches of water" and heated on the hibachis carried in by cooperative uncles; watching the water boil, the shells open, broth being seasoned, butter added, and then the adults happily eating the sweet chewy clams. As she says though this was an experience seen from two perspectives. While the adults appreciated the rubbery bivalves, "for us children, the thrill was the hunt..."

Finding steamers in Los Angeles is near-impossible so my experience is with Manila clams from Carlsbad Aquafarms at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market. My own remembrance of eating clams is from a very brief stint crewing on a Gulf Coast fishing boat. I remember the work as tedious, back-breaking, dangerous, and hot. The clams however were the best I've ever eaten. The captain of the boat showed me how to make what he called sop which he applied liberally to the clams, creating a perfect mixture of the bivalve's brine, butter's sweetness, beer's sourness, and Tabasco's heat.

Clams Barbecued on the Half-Shell with Sop

Yield
4 servings
Time 30 minutes

Ingredients

2 dozen Manila, Littleneck or Butter clams (washed, scrubbed clean)
1/4 cup sweet butter (melted)
1/4 cup beer
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
Pepper

Method

Season the melted butter, beer, and Tabasco sauce mixture with a little black pepper. Put the clams in a a covered saucepan with 1/4 cup water on high heat for 2-3 minutes or until all the clams open. Discard any that don't open. Reserve the broth to use as a base for clam chowder or a pasta sauce.

Let the clams cool, then tear off and discard the shell that doesn't have a clam. Pour a little sauce over each clam in its half-shell (about 1/2 teaspoon/clam) and put on a hot barbecue grill or in a 450 degree oven for 5 minutes, then serve with a fresh baguette.

Variations

Sauté until lightly brown 1/4 cup Italian parsley or cilantro (leaves only, finely chopped) and 2 garlic cloves (peeled, finely chopped) in olive oil and add to the sauce.

Sauté until lightly brown 1/4 cup Basil (leaves only, finely chopped) and 2 garlic cloves (peeled, finely chopped) in olive oil and add to the sauce.