Monday, January 13, 2014

Piquant Clams Casino

Holidays came and went, and as usual, we are busy and apparently have resorted to posting just once a month. But we keep plugging at it all the same, we are still here, I promise. Part of the benefit, I suppose, is that recipes that do pop up are some of our most favorite ones that we want to record and use for our own reference.

For Christmas Eve's Italian tradition of the feast of the seven fishes which we've adopted, although neither one of us can lay claim to Italian heritage (aside from the fact that we live in New Jersey), we thought nothing could be more appropriate than locally harvested clams for a clams casino recipe. Clams, to boot, from the same area where we were just this last summer at the Highlands, NJ clam festival.

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And despite the words of Don Henley to which I listen to with a certain sadness on the radio this time of year, "Nobody's on the road, nobody's at the beach. I feel it in the air, the clams summer's out of reach" -  clams can be enjoyed beyond the summer (which is great for clam-fiends like us). Atlantic hard-shelled clams are delicious year-round.

For this recipe we've experimented with a few different sizes. The largest, quahogs, are tough and best used for chowders. Smaller sizes, including cherrystones, topnecks, and littlenecks (listed from larger to smaller) may all be used for this recipe although the cherrystones will be somewhat less tender. We have tried both cherrystones and littlenecks in this recipe. Littlenecks, although smaller (about 2 inches in width), are very tender and are the optimal choice for this recipe.

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It is important that the clams from your local seafood vendor are fresh (and alive). Vendors may display clams on ice, but this is not a good way to keep them for long. They are best transported in a mesh bag; do not seal them in plastic or they will suffocate.

Once at home, clams should be cleaned under cool water and inspected. Discard any with cracked shells or ones that are open which do not close when tapped gently. Also discard any that float. Another test that never fails is the smell test - fresh clams have a very faint, slightly metallic smell - anything stronger and they are likely no good. Always trust your nose. Then, as you would with any honored guest, it is time to prepare a bath and a meal for the clams.

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This next step accomplishes two things. It causes them to open slightly and expel whatever is in their stomachs (usually mud and grit, which you in turn avoid eating). And, it gives you more time to be sure each one is indeed alive. After you've scrubbed the clams, place them in a large shallow bowl or pot. To this, add a mild brine (1 tsp rock salt per cup of water). Add enough brine so that they are submerged. Then, sprinkle on an ample amount of fine-ground corn meal. The brine should be cool, but not too cold. If it is too cold, the clams will become inactive and will not filter the cornmeal. The ideal temperature is 55-60 F. It is important to soak them in salted water - they are used to seawater and if soaked in freshwater can perish.

The soak should be for at least 2 hours, preferably longer. The brine and cornmeal may be changed one or more times depending on how much grit the clams expel. If you listen carefully, you may even hear them blowing bubbles (sounds like a quiet sneeze). This means they are content (we think).

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It is worth noting that you don't have to follow this cornmeal cleansing process, you can simply scrub the clams clean, make sure they are not dead, and proceed with the recipe - you just might get a little clam grit in your mouth. We are also extremely lucky to have several fresh seafood vendors around. If you don't have this available, or feel too squeamish about handling live clams, this recipe is easily modifiable for canned clams.

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Now, clams are of course really good. But let's talk about what makes them better. Namely bacon. Happy, grass-fed free-range pig bacon without nitrates. After you've cleansed the clams and let them filter the cornmeal, prepare the bacon and breadcrumb topping. For the topping, we used poblano pepper (you can even try jalapeño), shallot, bacon, cilantro and breadcrumbs.

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To prepare the clams for the final step, you have several options. If you are an expert clam shucker, you can shuck the clams raw, leaving them on the half shell. Simply top off each half shell with the clam with the topping and bake. If you are somewhat new at this like we are, we find it helpful to pre-steam the clams for a few minutes until they just open up. It is much easier to shuck them then.

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To modify the recipe with canned clams - drain the can of juices. Place a teaspoon or so of the clam meat onto clam shells or small bake-proof dishes, and top with the bacon topping. Bake at the temperature specified in the recipe until the topping is golden brown and crisp. Enjoy!


Piquant Clams Casino
Makes 18 Clams

You will need:
18 or so littleneck clams (about 2 inches in size)
1/2 to 1 cup stock (vegetable, chicken, or seafood)
2 bacon slices, finely chopped
1 1/2 oz (shot glass) of dry white wine
1 shallot, finely chopped
1/2 poblano pepper, cored, finely chopped
1/4 cup bread crumbs
2 tbsp fresh cilantro, finely chopped
Cracked pepper, to taste
Lime wedges

Directions:
1. Preheat the oven to 450 ºF (232 ºC); position rack closer to the heat source. Rinse and scrub the clams. Get rid of any that have broken shells or are open and won't close if tapped on gently. To avoid eating grit, follow the cleaning process we discussed in the post.
2. In a pan, cook bacon on medium heat until cooked and slightly browned, 3-4 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the wine. Bring to a simmer and reduce to about 1 tbsp, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the shallot and the poblano pepper. Cook until the vegetables are softened, 3-4 minutes. Scrape the mixture into a bowl. Add the bread crumbs, cilantro and cracked pepper, mix to combine.
3. In a large pot, pour enough stock to have about 1/2 inch of liquid on the bottom. Bring to a simmer. Add the clams and cover with a lid. Bring back to a boil, and steam the clams until they open slightly, 2-3 minutes. Rinse the clams briefly under cold water to cool, then shuck each clam, leaving them on the half shell. Place the shucked clams on a half-shell on a baking sheet lined with foil.
4. Place about 1-2 tsp of the bacon mixture on top of each clam. Bake the clams, until bubbling and the tops are slightly browned, about 8-10 minutes total. Serve immediately, with lime wedges.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

New Pickles

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I can't believe that today is the first of December. But perhaps it is appropriate to finish the farming season with a pickling post. This post has been marinating since the few last warm days in October, when we went to Alstede Farms here in Chester, New Jersey, with no purpose whatsoever other than pick a few of our own vegetables and see and pet the farm animals (my husband an I are both about five years old when it comes to such things).

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At the farm, past the animals, past the pumpkins, past the corn, all of which attracted most of the visitors, we stumbled upon a cucumber patch devoid of anyone entirely.

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I was delighted because I've loved these tiny, prickly, crunchy crescent knobs of goodness ever since I actually was five at my grandmother's dacha in the summer where she had a vegetable garden. We used to pick fresh, small cucumbers from her garden as soon as we would arrive there for the summer. I would eat a few right away, fresh, split in half sprinkled with salt (my favorite snack, still). But there were too many to eat fresh, and I watched my grandmother and my mom use the rest to make new pickles, ready in just a few days.

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At the farm, the first time around, my husband and I picked just a few, enough for one or two jars, for an experiment. The next time we came back, we filled our box with cucumbers, with some corn and string beans thrown on top for decency.

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With this recipe I attempted to recreate the taste of a freshly pickled cucumber, taken from a just opened jar of my grandmother's pickles. I've combined what I learned from a few cookbooks I've inherited from her, published sometime in the 70's in Russian, with my mom's own remembered recipe.

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The pickles taste just like I remember them.

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Nothing can ever beat freshly picked vegetables. Kirby cucumbers should be small, freshly picked. The best kind is to pick your own if you can, and pickle them the same or next day. The next best thing is a farmer's market, but likely there won't be cucumbers small enough, unless you make a request in advance. Avoid store-bought because they've been sitting there a while, and often they're covered with stuff which can react with and possibly spoil your brine.

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These pickles are ready in just a few days. We managed to wait about three. I'd say these were just about perfect by day four. These should be consumed within a few weeks of pickling. Since the brine is salt-based and the pickles are not fermented, the recipe is not meant for long-term pickling.

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New Pickles
Makes 6 one-quart jars

You will need:

Equipment:
Canning pot
Large pot for the brine
Six one-quart jars, with lids and bands
Tongs or jar grabber
Weighing scale

Brine (4% - 4.5% salt):
240 - 270 grams (8.5 to 9.5 oz by weight) kosher salt*
6 liters (6.3 quarts) water

Spices for each jar:
2 garlic cloves
1/4 tsp whole coriander seeds
1/4 tsp whole mustard seeds
1/4 tsp pepper corns
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp dill seeds
2 whole cloves
8 sprigs of fresh dill
1-2 dried hot chili peppers (optional)

7-9 lbs small kirby cucumbers (about 2-2.5 inches long)

Directions:

1. Wash the cucumbers, remove the flowers, then place in a large pot and cover with water. Let soak for about one hour.

2. Sterilize jars and lids. Bring a canner (giant pot) filled with water to a simmer. Ladle some of the water carefully into each jar (to prevent the glass from cracking). Then, submerge the jars, a few at a time, together with the lids, and boil for about 10 minutes. Remove from the canner and let the jars cool slightly. Discard the water.

3. For the brine, bring the 6 liters of water to a boil, stir in the salt, until it is completely dissolved. Avoid using an aluminum pot, as the metal will react with the salt; teflon-lined or stainless steel is best. Turn the heat down to a simmer.

4. Pack each sterilized jar with overlapping layers of spices and cucumbers. Cucumbers should be very tightly packed, leaving about half an inch for the brine at the top. Depending on the size of the cucumbers, you should be able to pack about 1 1/2 lb cucumbers per jar. Pour in the hot brine; the brine should cover the contents of each jar; seal the jars. Overturn the jars once to get rid of any air bubbles. Cool completely. Store in the fridge. Pickles will be ready after 3-4 days. Consume within 1 month. Keep refrigerated at all times.

* use salt that has NO ADDITIVES, including no iodine; it should not be sea salt. Ingredients should read salt, nothing else. Anything else will cloud or spoil your brine. Also be careful to WEIGH your salt, and do NOT use volumetric measurements. This is especially important if you use granulated salt as opposed to flaky salt, the former of which is much denser. The percentage of salt in your brine will vary greatly if you only rely on volumetric measurements.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Clam Chowder (Dairy-Free)

At the clam festival last month we got to sample a variety of different clam chowders. The New England clam chowder is thick, rich, with a heavy dose of cream. The Manhattan clam chowder is tomato-based, with a thinner broth, and no cream. There are also several hybrids, using some variation of one or the other, or using both tomato and cream. My preference is New England clam chowder, since it seems the flavors blend better together. Once I started researching recipes for New England clam chowder, they varied from a quarter to the majority of the liquid in the chowder consisting of heavy cream. Using that much cream, even if I was a milk fiend, seemed a bit much. It also happens that around these parts we're lactose intolerant. My husband really wanted to try making some, but the thought of that much cream almost completely turned him off from it. So I started thinking about how I could recreate the same richness and creaminess of a New England clam chowder and avoid using dairy.

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As I began looking through different recipes and learning more about it, I found a curious website. It is a collection, amassed by UMass, of New England clam chowder recipes as they evolved through the years, from the more modern recipes to more interesting ones going back to the seventeen hundreds.

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If you peruse the recipes you can actually observe the evolution of the clam chowder, from a simple clam broth with some milk splashed in at the end cooked over hot coals, to what it has become today. Some of the more common threads involve bacon, clams and dairy. The earlier recipes used lard for the fat to cook the vegetables, with some of the later recipes using bacon fat for the same purpose.

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This recipe has no pork grease or dairy. But it tastes just as good as the real thing. Maybe even better. For the thick base, I decided to use a vichyssoise-style soup (a potato and leek puree soup). For this version of the clam chowder, I cooked the potatoes and leeks in the clam juice and then pureed them, giving the chowder a thick, creamy, filling consistency, without using the dairy. The end result is a thick, creamy broth, with almost no fat - since the clams are naturally fat-free. The chowder is nonetheless extremely filling, and you will not miss the dairy.

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This chowder needs no additional thickener as the starch from the potatoes is a natural thickener. Although the recipe has no dairy, if you prefer it a little creamier, you can easily stir in 1/2 cup of milk at the end. The thick texture of the chowder makes this a good meal year round, not just when clams are in season. Serve it with some oyster crackers and hot sauce. Enjoy!

Clam Chowder
(Serves 4)

You will need:
2 tbsp canola oil
2 leek whites, cleaned
1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
3-4 medium white potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups clam juice, divided
1 cup water
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 bay leaf
1/8 tsp Worcestershire sauce
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup chopped canned clams, strained of juice (about 3 of 6.5 oz cans)
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
Hot sauce, such as Tabasco (optional)

Directions:

1. Dice one of the leeks. Heat canola oil in a stock pot. Add the diced leek and the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the diced potatoes, 1 cup clam juice and 1 cup water. Stir in the wine. Cover, and bring just to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are soft, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat.
2. Strain the solids from the pot, reserving the liquids. Process the solids in a food processor, in batches if necessary, into a puree. Return the pureed vegetables, together with the reserved liquids into the pot. Add the second cup of clam juice. Stir to combine.
3. Bring the pot back to a simmer. Add the celery and the bay leaf. Chop the other leek, add the leek to the pot. Stir in the Worcestershire sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and let simmer for about 10 minutes, until celery is tender. Stir in the chopped clams, bring back to a simmer and cook 4-5 minutes more. Stir in the parsley. Serve, with hot sauce and oyster crackers (optional).

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Jersey Summer

Summer came and went. Ours seemed like a big blur of frenzy intermixed with occasional glimpses of tranquility.

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Though we haven't deliberately chosen Jersey - as in, oh let's live here of all places - rather we've kind of stumbled into it (our living situation was altogether rather random, going from NYC to Norway and then here), I'd say we've transplanted quite well (better perhaps than we did at 60º north).

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Following the when in Rome philosophy, this summer, rather than going to a beach off somewhere in exotic places, we thought, well, we have a beach. A whole shore of it. So to the Shore we went. Although I expected beach towns, shacks, and some great waves, one thing that didn't occur to me was the food. As in, buckets and buckets worth of delicious, fresh seafood.

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Take for instance, clam fest, taking place every year in Highlands NJ, about which we found out about by a complete accident while stopping for a snack there. It took place over an entire weekend in August. Needless to say, we of course went to it, and became so overwhelemed that we somehow forgot the shore that was more South, or the Sandy Hook that was right there, and came back for it the second day. Yes, just for the clams.

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I've had clams before, but not like this. If you remember the movie Forrest Gump, there was scene where Bubba was explaining how he would like to go into the shrimping business after the army, and was listing all the things you could do with shrimp (here is the scene), the clam thing is similar. You can barbecue 'em, boil 'em, broil 'em, bake 'em, sautee 'em.

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There's clam bake, clam chowder, clam soup, clam stew, fried clams, steamed clams, clams on the half-shell, grilled clams, clam cakes, stuffed clams, clam sandwich. That's about it.

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Soft-shell clams or "steamers" as they are often called are clams primarily used for steaming, and then eating by dipping them in clam broth to wash off any remaining grit and then dipping them in melted butter.  Their shell is made of calcium carbonate, which is very thin and brittle for a mollusk, and can be crushed with your fingers, hence the name soft-shell.

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These clams have a distinctive "long neck," a blackish protrusion, which is connected to the actual clam. The neck is covered with a black, inedible membrane. To eat the steamers, you remove the top half-shell, then peel off the the skin from the long neck. The neck is convenient to grab and pull the clam out of the bottom half shell, and then dip it in the broth and butter.

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You can use the shell to catch any running juices and then drink those up as well.

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The other common type is the hard clam, also known as littleneck clam, topneck or quahog (names vary depending on their sizes). These have a hard shell, and can be eaten raw on the half-shell.

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These can be used for steaming as well, especially for pasta-dishes, while stand-alone steamed clam dishes usually use the steamers. The hard clams are also great grilled.

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The larger quahogs, having tougher meat, are usually reserved for dishes like the clam chowder.  But if you're feeling clammed out, there are always other options. We are definitely going back next year for the clam festival, and also a lobster fest that apparently takes place every year on Bradley Beach.

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Profits from the clam fest went in part to helping rebuild the shore which was significantly damaged by Hurricane Sandy. But if you ask folks, I'd say we've bounced back pretty strong.

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See you next summer, Jersey shore.

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