Author Tamar Adler in “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace” praised bivalves writing, “Clams and mussels, with their hard little shells and tiny bodies, are among the most naturally giving of sea creatures. They carry tiny wells of seawater with them wherever they go.”
I agree and love the fact that when you cook with them, they add the bounty of that fresh seawater flavor to the dish.
These great fresh clams were at New Deal Fish Market on Cambridge Street in Cambridge.
Clams are something I associate with happy memories. They make me think of days on the beach digging softshell clams. I remember, as a kid, opening small clams on our boat with my clam knife and passing them to my father to enjoy while he and my uncles dug bushels of the larger quahogs that would become part of our frozen winter seafood supply.
From the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection, a No Digging Clam Sign from 1934 - 1956.
Aside from shucking, my job was to sort and test the clams with a ring to be sure they were all of legal size. Clams are one of the easier foods to forage, but you do need a license from the local city or town where you will be digging and to know the size and daily catch limits. You should also check with the local shellfish authorities daily to be certain shellfish from that area are safe to eat.
New England Clams
Our local names for clams can be confusing to visitors. We call the soft shell clams with the long, protruding siphon a steamer, and the middle size hard shell clam a littleneck. Wikipedia explains the grades, “The smallest legally harvestable clams are called countnecks, next size up are littlenecks, then topnecks. Above that are the cherrystones, and the largest are called quahogs or chowder clams.”
Razor clams or as they are officially know Atlantic Jackknife Clams have been gaining popularity, but I find they need a really skillful hand to prepare. It’s not something I would tackle at home.
The very large surf clam that was used to make Howard Johnson’s famous clam strips is found today in some chowders and sushi.
Howard Johnson's postcard from the Boston Public Library Tichnor Bros. Inc., Boston, Mass. Collection.
Some favorite foods of summer are based on this category of shellfish. Chowders, fried clams, stuffed clams, clambakes, steamers, clam fritters (called clam cakes in Rhode Island) all give us reasons to visit summer destinations along the shore.
Rocky Point clam chowder with clam cakes for dipping. (More about this here)
Hot weather brings out cravings for some of my favorite clam dishes. One dish that I often find myself wanting is Clams Al Forno – a wonderful dish of littlenecks roasted in their shells and topped with a mixture of chopped tomatoes, sliced onion, chopped garlic, jalapeño, red pepper flakes, white wine, and butter. When all the clams are open, they are sprinkled with julienned scallions and served with lemon wedges and plenty of crusty bread to soak up the sauce.
The full recipe is available in Cucina Simpatica: Robust Trattoria Cooking From Al Forno by Al Forno restaurant owners Joanne Killeen and George Germon.
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Words: Penny Cherubino (Adapted for BostonZest from one of her Fresh & Local newspaper columns)
Photos: ©2015 Penny Cherubino & Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection and their Tichnor Bros. Inc., Boston, Mass. Collection