Today, when you buy fresh clams in a local market, you are most likely getting Manila, a hard-shelled clam that is an interloper, a stowaway that came to the West Coast in bags of oyster seeds — spats, they are called — from Japan, a process that began in the 1930s.
This hearty bivalve wasn’t harvested commercially until the 1980s and now it is ubiquitous, in part because it quickly gained a foothold in the wild and in part because it is easy to farm. The flavor of farmed Manila clams is indistinguishable from its wild sibling, which makes sense because both thrive in a similar environment and feed from the same ocean water. There is no reason to search for wild clams, as there are no negative environmental or health impacts from farmed clams, as there can be with many farmed fin fish.
Of the hundreds of different species of clams around the world, we eat just a few, primarily the Manila, Pacific Littleneck, the Butter Clam, and the Quahog, on the West Coast. Sometimes we find New Zealand Cockles, which are tiny and delicious; the best time to look for them is from April through August.
The Atlantic Razor Clam is occasionally available, typically in Asian markets in San Francisco, and it is absolutely delicious, as anyone who has traveled much in Spain, where they are embraced with great enthusiasm, will attest. They need nothing more than a couple of minutes on a very hot griddle and some garlic butter, though Chinese restaurants offer a range of delicious preparations, too. If you love shellfish but are unfamiliar with razor clams, do not pass up an opportunity to try them.
One of the easiest ways to enjoy clams is to steam them in a bit of white wine, garlic and butter and enjoy them as is or over linguine for pasta al Vongole, with or without a few lemon wedges alongside. You might add a bit of your favorite hot sauce, too, but don’t add too many other ingredients or you’ll eclipse the clams bright, briny and earthy flavors.
Despite the deliciousness of clams and their easy preparation, they’ve never enjoyed the same sex appeal as oysters. I know of no odes to clams nor any books devoted to them, even though they are enjoyed both raw and cooked around the world. Their nutritional profiles are similar, with protein, calcium, and iron among their main nutrients, though clams have quite a bit more protein than oysters. There are no clam bars, either, though some oyster bars offer clams, too. I recommend trying them the next time you see them.
Today’s recipes are from my wine pairing archives. I typically enjoy clams with sauvignon blanc but any crisp white wine or dry sparkling wine is an excellent companion to one of the world’s great shellfish.
When cooking clams, rinse them well and check each one; if it is open, press on it; if it doesn’t close, discard it. If a clam has not opened after a few minutes on the heat, pull it out and open it carefully, as it may be filled with mud. This is a rare occurrence but it can ruin an entire dish if not discovered. Be sure not to overcook clams, as they will become tough and rubbery.
You’ll find my recipe for clam chowder and other simple recipes for clams from the Seasonal Pantry archives at “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.
These clams make great appetizers at a dinner party but they are also a wonderful — and easy — main course, especially served over linguine for perfumed version of pasta al vongole.
Steamed Clams with Lemon Verbena, Ginger, and Lime
Serves 5 to 6 as an appetizer or 3 to 4 as a main course
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium shallot, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1-2 serranos, minced
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 medium lemon verbena sprig
5 pounds small fresh clams, such as Manila, rinsed thoroughly (see Note below)
1 tablespoon butter
Put the olive oil into a large heavy pot set over medium low heat, add the shallot and saute until soft and fragrant, about 5 to 6 minutes; do not let it brown. Add the garlic and serranos and saute 2 minutes more. Add the white wine, the lemon verbena and the clams, increase the heat to medium high and cover the pan.
Cook until all the clams have popped open.
Working quickly, use a slotted spoon to divide the clams between individual bowls.
Add the juice of 1 lime to the cooking liquid, along with the butter. The moment the butter melts, strain the juices and pour some over each portion of clams. Cut the remaining lime into wedges, garnish the clams with a wedge or two and serve immediately.
Variation: Cook 12 ounces of dried linguine according to package directions. Divide the cooked pasta among individual bowls and drizzle each portion with a little extra virgin olive oil so that the pasta does not stick to itself. Immediately top with the clams and continue as directed in the main recipe.
This dish is easy to make, including on a week night, and is absolutely delicious.
Pan-roasted Manila Clams with Shallots, Lemon and Butter
Serves 3 to 4
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 shallot, minced
1 andouille or smoked chorizo sausage, diced
3 pounds Manila clams, smallest possible, rinsed
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 Meyer lemon
2 tablespoons butter
— Hearth bread, in thick slices, hot
Pour the olive oil into a deep saute pan or saucepan set over medium-low heat, add the shallot and saute for 3 or 4 minutes, until it begins to wilt.
Add the sausage and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until it begins to release its fat.
Increase the heat to high, add the clams and cook for 1 minute. Add the wine and quickly cover the pan. Cook for 31/2 to 4 minutes, until you no longer hear the sound of the clams popping open. Uncover and cook until all the clams are fully open and the liquid reduced to about 1/3 cup.
Working quickly, use a slotted spoon to transfer the clams and sausage to individual bowls.
Squeeze the half lemon into the pan, add the butter and swirl the pan until the butter just melts. Pour some of the sauce over each portion and serve immediately.
Here’s a lovely combination of sea and soil, with celery playing more of a forward role than it often does.
Clams with Chickpeas, Pasta & Celery Relish
Serves 3 to 4
3 celery stalks, trimmed and strings removed, cut into small dice
2 tablespoons minced red onion
— Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more to taste
— Kosher salt
5 tablespoons best-quality olive oil
3 pounds fresh small clams or cockles, rinsed thoroughly
1/2 cup dry white wine
1½ cups cooked chickpeas or 1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
4 ounces small dried pasta, cooked in salted water until just tender, drained and rinsed
— Black pepper in a mill
3 tablespoons fresh snipped chives
1 lemon, in wedges
— Sourdough hearth bread, hot
Put the celery into a small bowl, add the onion, lemon zest and lemon juice and toss gently.
Season with salt, add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, taste and correct for salt and acid balance. Cover and set aside.
Pour the remaining olive oil into a heavy pan (cast iron is ideal) set over high heat, add the clams and wine, cover and cook, agitating the pan every few seconds, until the clams open, about 3 to 4 minutes. Uncover, reduce the heat to medium, add the chickpeas and pasta, turn gently and heat through.
Discard any clams that did not open.
Divide among individual soup plates, being sure to include pan juices with each portion.
Spoon celery relish on top, sprinkle with chives, garnish with lemon wedges and enjoy right away, with bread alongside for sopping up the juices.
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