Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Clams: Two if by sea

        Scenes from my restaurant life: One of our waiters came downstairs to find me.
     “There are some people here that want to see you…..” 
       I had assumed that friends had come to dine. “Uh….” 
       The waiter persisted, “They asked if they could talk to you….” He then offered more               information: “The cupcakes they brought for their party are smashed  and they were wondering if you could fix them.”
Me: “Not really…any butter cream I have is frozen……”
Yes. They brought their own cupcakes into the restaurant for their party, smashed them, and now needed to be bailed out.  So it goes. (sorry, Mr.V.)

 Many before me have been called by the sea.*”
Our local grocery store carries a variety of clams—little necks, top necks, and cherrystone. Cherrystones are large enough to use for clam sauce or chowder. A dozen shouldn’t set you back too much and they will make enough clam sauce or chowder for four people. If you are two, as we are, that means an extra dinner.
You don’t need to shuck the clams, either. Cooking the clams in either water or wine will open them and produce a great flavored broth. Making the broth and chopping the clams adds an extra step but one that’s easy and not very time consuming. And yes, I will admit that I used canned chopped clams for convenience when making clam sauce in the past but using fresh clams is worth it.
One dozen cherrystone clams make enough clams and broth for four servings of either the chowder or the pasta. The pasta recipe is scaled for two servings; there’s just two of us so one batch will provide two dinners. We freeze leftover broth and clams for another day. If you are making the recipe for four people, double the recipe. 
A (“white”) clam sauce is about as easy as it gets: good clam broth, chopped clams, garlic, hot pepper flakes, olive oil, and maybe a little bacon if you wish. We did. Pancetta would be the “Italian way” to go. Recently we dined at a local Italian restaurant and their linguine with clam sauce--“Linguine, Clams, Pancetta”-- was described as having “thinly sliced applewood smoked bacon.” So you see, even Italians can be loosey-goosey.

Pasta with Clam Sauce
The broth makes enough for four servings
For the broth:
1 dozen Cherrystone clams
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced

This makes enough for two servings:
6 ounces (dry) pasta (linguine, spaghetti, etc)
1 to 2 cloves minced garlic
2 slices thick cut bacon, cut into 1/2”- thick slices or 1/4 cup diced pancetta
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
red pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
olive oil, for cooking
1/2 cup reserved clam broth
1/2 cup chopped clams
2 Tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
salt and ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter

1. Begin by making the broth. Rinse and scrub the clams under cold water. Place the cleaned clams into a sauce pot along with the wines and the garlic. Cover the clams and cook over high heat until the clams open, about 10 to 12 minutes. As each clam opens, remove them from the pot and place them into a bowl. If any clams don’t open, discard them. It’s nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong. Let the broth cool slightly then pour it carefully into a bowl, watching for any sediment at the bottom of the pot. There will be about 1 1/2 cups broth. Remove the clams from their shells and chop the clams; set chopped clams aside.
2. Place a large sauté pan onto the stove over medium-high heat. Swirl in 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the bacon to the pan and cook until crisp. Remove the bacon from the pan and drain it on paper towels. Drain the bacon fat from the pan. Return the pan to the stove over medium-high heat. Swirl in 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the red pepper flakes and 1/2 cup of the clam broth. Simmer for a minute then set the pan aside.
3. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water according to the directions on the box; cook the pasta for 1 minute less than suggested.
4. When the pasta has cooked, return the pan to the heat and bring the sauce to a simmer; add the bacon, clams, and parsley to the pan. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Add the pasta and mix the pasta into the sauce; cook for about a minute; add extra broth if necessary. Add the butter and mix it into the pasta. Remove pan from the heat. Divide between two bowl and serve.

New England Clam Chowder 
“But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ships biscuits and salted pork cut up into little flakes! The whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt….We dispatched it with great expedition”  
              Herman Melville, “Moby Dick” (1851)

I’m wading into dangerous territory here since anyone who makes chowder has his or her opinion on exactly how to make it. But more on that in a minute.
The word “chowder” is derived from the French word chaudiere, an iron kettle in which chowders were made. I first learned the word from an episode of “Julia Child and Company”  where Julia pronounced the word with great gusto, “Shaw-de-yay!!
The first published chowder recipe, written in the form of a poem no less, appeared in the Boston Evening Post on September 21, 1751, (which was three years before the start of the French and Indian War and three years before the birth of Mozart, to put it into historical perspective). One hundred years later, Herman Melville wrote of chowder in Moby Dick; I would think that little changed in the one hundred years between the first recipe and the chowder in Moby Dick. What we think of as New England clam chowder today is a more modern creation.
Two items that we consider chowder staples, potatoes and milk, weren’t added until later; potatoes in the early 1800’s, milk in the 1800’s. The familiar thick clam chowder was created by the Howard Johnson restaurant chain in the 1940s. (I am indebted to Chef Jasper White’s scholarship on these chowder-related matters).
I use bacon in this recipe; traditionally it’s salt pork which supplies the fat for cooking the vegetables.
Since there is no true clam chowder, feel free to interpret this to your preference. There are no chowder police who will swoop in and tell you that your version is wrong (just look at Manhattan clam chowder). Remember, as with so many recipes, it all depends on who is in the kitchen.

New England Clam Chowder
makes 2 quarts chowder
1 dozen Cherrystone clams
2 cups water

2 or 3 slices of bacon, thick sliced if possible, cut crosswise into 1/2” slices
1 cup onion, diced
2 stalks celery, sliced (about 3/4 cup)
2 baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2” pieces
salt and ground black pepper
olive oil, for cooking
2 cups milk or cream
Roux: 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
           4 Tablespoons flour (can use rice flour)

1. Rinse and scrub the clams under cold water. Place the clams into a large sauce pot with the water. Cover and bring to a boil. Cook the clams for 10 to 12 minutes. As the clams open, remove them from the pot and place them into a bowl. After the all the clams have opened (discard any clams that have not opened), let the broth cool slightly then carefully drain the broth into a large bowl being careful not to let any sediment on the bottom of the pot drain into the broth. There will be about 3 cups of clam broth.
2. Place a clean large sauce pot onto the stove over medium-high heat. Then the pot is hot, swirl  1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil into the pot. Add the bacon and cook until crisp. Add the onions and celery to the pot and cook until the onions turn translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Add the clam broth to the pot. Simmer the stock for about 10 minutes. While chowder is simmering, remove the clams from their shells and chop them; there will be about 1 cup chopped clams. Set aside.
4. Add the potatoes and cream (or milk) to the pot. Season with salt and ground black pepper and let the chowder simmer. While the chowder is cooking, make the roux: melt the butter in a small sauce pan and whisk the flour into the melted butter. Cook the roux for about 1 minute; do not let the roux brown. Empty the cooked  roux into a small bowl to prevent it from cooking further.
5. When the potatoes are tender-they can be easily pierced with a knife point-whisk in the roux a little at a time until the desired thickness is achieved. Add the chopped clams to the chowder. Taste for seasoning. Cook the chowder for a few minutes to warm the clams. Serve. Oh, sweet friends!

                        *-Tom Waits, “Shiver me Timbers”
                        Black and white images courtesy the Nantucket Historical Association.