My brother-in-law Russ Morgan, a California boy who grew up around a dairy farm, and our friend Jan Hirschmann, a native of Tacoma, are the Mutt and Jeff of clam diggers.
While Jan shoulders the shovel, Russ is right beside him, elbow-deep in mud, long arm and desperate fingers burrowing down to grab the massive horse clams destined for a pot of creamy chowder.
Later, with the smell of clam and seawater reeking from their clothes, and fortified by Jan's mysterious margaritas, they clean and shuck the clams on the cabin porch. It's the best of times, and a quintessential Northwest summer moment.
With Puget Sound serving as our backdrop, Northwesterners have a proprietary love affair with Pacific clams. But getting them from the beach (or grocery store) to the table requires some planning and preparation.
Caring for clams
Saltwater is essential for removing the sand and grit from clams, especially for those with protruding siphons. If you are on the beach, pails of clean, cold saltwater, changed occasionally, will do the work for you. Although most commercial clams have already been gorged, a brief soaking will release any grit left behind.
Now check to make sure the clams are alive. "Today the quality control in stores is really good," says Steve Harbell, marine-resources specialist for Washington State University Extension Service. "What's important is the care and attention the shellfish has received before cooking. If the clamshell closes when touched, it's a good indicator that the clam is still alive. If it doesn't, the clam should be discarded at this point."
Clams with large protruding siphons, such as geoducks and horse clams, won't close completely, but the siphons should pull back a little when touched.
Once cleaned, put clams into a bowl, cover with a damp towel and refrigerate up to 3 days. The home refrigerator is often too cold for clams — 40 degrees is the optimum temperature — causing them to gape open. But they will still be fine for eating.
Clams should open naturally when they are cooked, but various reasons may cause some clams to open later than others. "When clams are cooking, the muscle releases and causes the shell to open," Harbell says. "But that may not happen, and that doesn't mean the clam should be discarded."
In the Times test kitchen, cooking times varied, with some clams needing three to five additional minutes in the pot before opening. If there are still a few unopened clams in the pot, you can try to gently open their shells. If they put up a fight, it's wise to discard them.
For serving, plan on about a pound of clams in the shell per person. (There are about 2 dozen manila clams per pound.) A pound in the shell equals about ¾ cup meat.
Steaming: Bring about ½ cup liquid and some seasonings to a boil, then add cleaned clams in the shell. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and steam, using 5 to 10 minutes as a guideline.
Grilling: Place cleaned and scrubbed clams in the shell on a grill about 4 to 6 inches above the coals. Turn after 4 minutes, then grill until the shells open, about 4 to 6 minutes longer.
Sauté or pan frying: Clams are shucked and the meat is sautéed in oil or butter about 2 to 3 minutes, or until firm. Clam meat toughens quickly on direct heat, so watch carefully.
Deep frying: Pour vegetable or canola oil at least 1½ inches deep into a wok, deep skillet or deep fryer. (The pan should be less than half full.) Heat oil to 375 degrees, using a thermometer to check temperature.
Larger shucked clams should be cut into 1-inch pieces. Make a batter by whisking about 1 cup club soda or beer into ¾ cup flour until smooth and thick. Add more soda if needed to loosen the batter. (Use immediately.)
Dip clam meat into a batter, drain and add several pieces at a time to the oil. Cook until brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Drain on several paper towels and hold in a warm oven.
CeCe Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources: "The Encyclopedia of Fish Cookery" by A.J. McClane; "Northwest Bounty" by Schuyler Ingle and Sharon Kramis; "Pacific Northwest Palate: Four Seasons of Great Cooking" by Susan Bradley; Steve Harbell, marine-resources specialist for the WSU Extension Service.