by Amanda Mattos
Inspired by this WaPo story about back yard clam bakes, a neighbor and I decided we wanted to go down that rabbit hole and try our hand at this clam bake thing. Steamed clams are one of my all time favorite foods (my parents occasionally relied on them as immediate hissy fit ending tools when I was a wee little thing). But I’ve never actually had baked clams (of the dig a hole in the sand and throw some coals in there variety). However, after battling rain delays to grilling all weekend, I decided to listen to the gods (and, you know, weatherbug) and transform the outdoor bake into an indoor boil (and conveniently removed the where the hell do I find parchment paper and flour sacks? panic). I did some research and cherry picked the methods I thought sounded best (and added my own personal preferences in there), enlisted the help of a few good friends and made a trip to the DC fish market. Pretty soon a feast came together that was wonderful, and pretty simple.
With a need to feed 10 people and taking side dishes into consideration, I estimated about 10 clams per-person would do the trick. Imagine my pleasant surprise to find that Jessie’s sells clams by the number, not the pound, and that 100 would only run me $47. I love the fish market, because smiling at people entitles you to bonus shellfish. So, with two enormous bags of clams I headed home.
Note: most clam bake (and a lot of boil) recipes call for fresh seaweed. I’m guessing I could have gotten this at the fish market, or probably from Whole Foods, but lucky for me my friend and dinner guest Kate had just returned from Florida, where she waded into the ocean and brought back zip lock bags full of the good stuff. It’s probably more integral to the process if you’re actually baking the clams, but I think it added a ton of flavor.
First things first, I dumped the live clams into cold cold sea-salted water. Some people around the internet argued I should do this for several hours. Some people on the internet said not to do it at all and just cook them immediately. I shot down the middle and soaked the clams until I was ready to cook them. Everyone that mentioned this technique agreed on one thing: use sea salt or kosher salt; the iodine in the table variety does funky things to the clams, apparently.
In a big stock pot, I melted a stick of butter, and sauteed onions, garlic, parsley and crushed red pepper, until it started to smell real nice. I threw a couple handfulls of seaweed on top, covered it with white wine and water, threw in a bunch of lemon wedges and a little salt and pepper, and brought that all to a boil.
When it was rolling, I put several halved ears of corn (including two grown in the Big Bear Cafe’s garden!) on top of the seaweed and let them steam for 10 minutes. At that point, I put another layer of seaweed, all the clams (drained), a final layer of seaweed, covered it, and let it go.
Clams (much like mussles and other shellfish) are ready as soon as their shells open. If you cook them too long, they will be tough. Real tough. Nothing you want to eat. So it’s important not to overcook. These guys took a lot longer than I anticipated (I was expecting about 10 minutes, it took closer to 30 — probably because of how many were in there and the size of the pot).
Now, while I was doing all of this (with help; it’s impossible to get Bloomingdale kids out of the kitchen), other folks were pulling the rest of the meal together. Caitlin brought over a big pot of chili. Greg donated some crusty bread. Lana sauteed amazing chorizo and spicy Italian sausage. Ray cut up a watermelon. Kate made some drawn lemon butter for dipping. Everyone brought beer. We sat down at the newspaper-covered table and dug in. As I indicated with my adoration for picking crabs, this kind of meal makes me happier than just about anything. Rolling up your sleeves, making a mess and having a great time with people you love. I highly recommend a clam “bake” of your own some time this summer.