A couple of days ago, I mentioned that my wife had purchased some clams that were harvested offshore from the tiny community of Qikiqtarjuaq. She bought two bags, totaling about 50 clams or so, and you can see one bag, and a few of the clams, in the above picture.
Most people are not aware of it, but the term clam is not a precise zoological name for a particular species but is rather a very broad general term for a whole range of similar, but not necessarily closely related, type of shellfish. I have no idea what particular species is harvested up in Qikiqtarjuaq. The variety has a very pronounced (and rather phallic looking) extension that is sometimes called the ‘neck’ but which is, in fact, a siphon by which the clam ingests seawater and extracts the plankton which makes up its diet. In this feature, it is very similar to the Geoduck (pronounced ‘gooey duck’) and the Horse Clam (or ‘Gaper’), but both these species are native to the Pacific Coast as far as I know and so that would seem to rule them out. I rather thought, after doing a little research, that these clams may be a northern variety of Quahog know as Arctica islandica, but they have the same sort of thin very fragile shell that is called a ‘soft-shell’ (in contrast to the hard shell quahogs), so I really am at a loss. In any event, these clams are sufficiently representative of the whole broad class that we can make some pretty good observations about clams in general…
Clams need to be purchased, or harvested, while they are still alive, and then kept that way until it comes time to eat them. They keep well in the fridge in just a covered container, but it is best to keep them in a large vessel containing seawater, or if not available, fresh water with salt added at about 1/3 of a cup per gallon. A further advantage to this is that, if left for many hours, or overnight, the clams will purge themselves and empty their digestive systems. There is nothing wrong with omitting this step, but clams also take in a lot sand, making them occasionally gritty, and this process can reduce that somewhat.
I once read that adding cornmeal to the water helps the clams to purge and I thought I would give it a try with this batch. The large container on the right holds about 30 odd clams in just plain salt water, while the rest are in the smaller container to which about a cup of cornmeal was added. To be honest, after leaving them overnight and then comparing the stomach contents of one from each container, I couldn’t tell much difference.
Here is one of the clams after soaking overnight. As you can see, the neck is considerably fuller after being rehydrated (in contrast to the first picture) and, indeed, this little guy seems quite ‘perky’ as it were…
There is a layer of ‘skin’ covering the neck that needs to be removed before consumption. With the large Geoducks, cooks sometimes blanch the shellfish in boiling water for a few seconds to make the job simpler, but with these, the membrane is easily slipped off.
Opening, or ‘shucking’ clams, especially the softer shelled varieties, is way, way easier than doing the same with oysters. All you need do is to insert a thin bladed knife into the shell opening and slide it around with the blade against the inside of the shell so as to sever any connections. This needs to be done on both sides and then the shell comes easily away.
Once removed, you can see that the clam essentially consists of two parts: the ‘neck’ and an attached piece of similar tissue, along with the softer ‘belly’ parts, or internal organs. In many restaurants, fried clams will be the ‘strip’ variety, consisting of just the meaty neck and internal muscle but, In New England especially, you can order clams ‘with belly’ which essentially consists of everything. Some people dislike having the ‘belly’ included but this is the part that many regard as having the best ‘sea’ flavor.
This picture shows things a little more clearly with the ‘belly’ part detached from the rest. It’s up to you whether or not you discard the softer bits but it is such a shame to waste.
Here, I have opened up the neck and cut away the portion that lies within the shell. The meat is very dense and firm and has a nice texture to it. Depending on the thickness of the meat, and the manner of cooking, I might be inclined to score the flesh here and there if the pieces are going to be eaten whole.
The first time I ate these clams was straight from the bag (ie: raw) outside the ‘courthouse’ in Qikiqtarjuaq. Quite honestly, although raw oyster on the half-shell is just about my all-time favorite food in the whole world, I can’t get nearly excited about eating whole clams this way. The neck meat, however’ (should your clam be of a similar type), makes a lovely sashimi. Above, you can see just a couple of sections sliced thinly from the siphon and served with a bit of wasabi.
If raw shellfish is not your thing and you would like to get a good idea of the fresh ocean flavor of a good clam, try sautéing the neck meat in just a little butter just until it turns white (just a minute or so over medium heat is enough). I guarantee that the taste, and the texture, will be like the best and sweetest lobster tail you have ever eaten.
Anyway, there are a few different dishes I want to try with the clams from this batch. It may actually be sometime before they get posted (I have a backlog of other stuff to go first), but they are coming in due course…