Piquant Clams Casino

Monday, January 13, 2014

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.

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