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Clamming up

7/7/2010

For more food-related blogs from Georgia Pellegrini, check out her website www.GeorgiaPellegini.com.

Seafood elicits so many different reactions from people. There are those who will suck down two dozen oysters, and go out of their way for the perfect sashimi, or the plump raw scallop dipped in hogwash.

Then there are those who are more cautious, who will appreciate a good piece of cooked salmon, or a bacon wrapped trout, (because doesn't bacon make everything taste better?), but they stop right there.

Clams sound innocent enough — minced and baked with butter and garlic and parsley and bread crumbs, or steamed in a little wine. Isn't that benign?

Except that not all clams are made equal. I made a clam chowder recently which was consumed by dinner guests with glee, until I showed them the photos of the living creature. They all admitted they were glad they hadn't seen the photographs first, proving my theory that so much of our prejudice against certain foods is mental.

What is it about looking into the eyes, or in this case, long protruding neck of a creature that makes it seem any less delicious?

The horse clam was the star of my chowder that evening, its oval and yellow-beige shell, flared around the leather-like skin of the siphon, which it is never able to completely retract.

They are related to the Geoduck, though haven't made the same glamorous comeback in recent years. But unlike the Geoduck, they are much easier to harvest, in fact, if you do it the way I did, it will be the cleanest outdoor adventure you've ever had.

The horse clam dwells in lower intertidal zones, where they bury themselves 12-16 inches below sand, mud, or gravel substrates. Our equipment included cut PCB pipe, a double sided shovel, a regular shovel, a dowel, and a bucket for the clams.

And then it went something like this (see the photo slide show for a visual explanation):

1. You look for circular pockets in the sand and drop your dowel into the indent to see if it sinks. The further it drops, the larger the clam is. That's because the clam retracts its neck when it feels the pressure from the dowel and takes the sand with it. So the further down it goes, the more space the neck was taking up before it retracted.

2. You start by digging around the dowel. Then you drop your PCB pipe over it to preserve your hole and prevent any water and sand from falling back in while you dig. You carefully remove the piles of sand, pushing the pipe down further as you go. As you get deeper, you remove the sand in smaller scoops so you don't cut the clam or lose it in a scoop of discarded sand.

PHOTO GALLERY

Clamming up

3. And soon out comes a large clam with a long accordion neck, in the grasp of your double sided shovel. Sometimes you'll find two, even three per hole, usually the smaller ones are above the larger ones.

When preparing your clams for dinner, it is best to let them soak in a bucket of water overnight so that they "relax." This will make it easier to clean them. It will also take out a lot of the sand. Then you shuck.

1. You pry open the shell with a shucking knife and take a look inside. The string on the outer rim of the shell is the lip. That's delicious and you want to save that. Then you save the triangular muscle which is the "digger" that allows the clam to burrow.

2. Then you cut off the neck and discard its black tip.

3. Then you peel the skin from the neck. Start from one end and peel it back in one strip if you can. It comes off quite easily, especially if the necks have relaxed.

4. There are two tubes inside the neck, because it's a bivalve. You slip a knife or your finger along the inside of one tube and it will open up. Then do the same for the other tube until you have a nice rectangular steak to cut up however you'd like. Here is an excellent recipe for clam chowder. I'll leave it up to you when you show your dinner guests the photos of the creatures they're eating.

"Clam Chowder"

1/2 cup bacon, cut into small strips

1 cup onion, diced

1 cup mushrooms, Crimini or button, cut into quarters or sixths

2 cloves garlic, chopped

8 ounces clam juice

2 cups chicken stock

Rosemary and Bay Leaf, or other aromatic of choice

2 cups clams, diced

3/4 cup white wine

1 cup red potatoes, quartered to the same size as the mushrooms

1/2 cup half and half or cream

1 pinch cayenne (optional)
Salt and pepper

1. In a medium pot, render the bacon until it begins to get crispy. Add the onions and saute until golden brown. Add the mushrooms and garlic halfway to cooking the onions and brown them as well.

2. Add the herbs and white wine and deglaze the pan. Let the liquid reduce by half. Remove the rosemary.

3. Add the clams and stir. Add the clam juice and chicken stock. Simmer on low for 30 minutes, covered.

4. Add the potatoes and cook for 30 minutes more until fork tender.

5. Finish with cream, a pinch of cayenne, a few turns of pepper and salt to taste. Bring to a simmer, turn off the heat and let sit. Letting it sit overnight will improve the flavor even more.

MAKES 5 CUPS

Editor's note: Georgia's passion for good food began at an early age, on a boulder by the side of a creek as she caught her trout for breakfast. After Wellesley and Harvard -- and a brief stint on Wall Street -- she decided to leave the cubicle world behind and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York City.

Upon graduating at the top of her class, she worked in two of America's best restaurants, Gramercy Tavern and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, as well as in one of the premier destination restaurants in Provence, France, La Chassagnette. It was there that she decided it was time to really get at the heart of where our food comes from and head to the source -- Mother Nature. She bought a shotgun and set her sites on the cutting edge of culinary creativity intent on pushing the boundaries of American gastronomy, from field to stream to table.

Her new book, "Food Heroes: Tales of 16 food artisans preserving tradition" will be coming out this year. She currently roams the world, hunting, tasting good food and meeting the good people who make it. You can read more about her work at www.GeorgiaPellegrini.com.