Maine's Unsung Clam
For seafood lovers who are willing to brave a winter beach - and do some digging - there are delicacies to be found that rival M
Digging surf clams by hand is a community ritual I first encountered soon after moving to Maine. Living on Old Orchard Beach during the off-season, I awoke one dawn to find the sand extended almost infinitely into Saco Bay. It was March, the new moon just before the equinox, and the strongest tide of the year. Where waves were finally licking the sand, what looked like the entire town was strung out against an orange sky. Women and children probed the tide-line with garden forks. Farther out, their husbands and fathers, similarly armed, waded in the frigid sea. [for the rest of this story, see the March 2008 issue of Down East.]One of them showed me what they were looking for. A little dimple in the damp sand marked the spot where a surf clam's siphon was once more awaiting the tide's return to circulate the water for food and oxygen. When he tamped the surface with his fork, telltale spouts - miniature "thar-she-blows" - went off all over the place. But when I returned with my own hastily improvised equipment, I found not a one.
Since then, however, I have become modestly adept. The surf clam - Spisula solidissima - is the answer to my winter foraging urges. Not to be confused with the soft-shelled clams, half their size, that we eat as steamers, surf clams can be easily six or seven inches long, their shells beloved of vacationing children for rainy day art projects and, in less health-conscious times, by their parents as ashtrays.
Unless you dig them yourself - on a beach, not a mudflat - your most likely encounter with a surf clam is in the can of chowder you buy at the store - in other words, one that was commercially harvested. Because digging them depends on times when the moon sucks the tide out to expose usually submerged parts of the beach, each expedition is a special occasion. And success is crowned when my chilled, chapped fingers present my wife with my quarry. "My hunter-gatherer," she exclaims, in only half-mock admiration.
Five o'clock one frigid morning last spring found me watching the Pine Point parking lot materialize out of the night. A pickup truck had already stopped against the dunes; another pulled in right behind me. Murky shapes, lumpy in their parkas and hip boots, gathered implements from the backs of the vehicles and headed down to the beach. I took a last swig of coffee and swung my legs out the car door to don my waders. Right on time, Dick drove up alongside.
Ever the optimist, he rushed me down to the beach, as if to outstrip the steadily lightening sky. "The old-timers always talk about clams falling out of the water and just lying on the sand. But you've got to be there before the gulls can see them." After a quick scan over the empty beach, he adds, "And it doesn't happen too often."
Without a license, anyone can collect up to three bushels of surf clams a day for "personal use." Regulation is left to the sheer inefficiency of standing up to your thighs in freezing water, probing the bottom at random with a pitchfork, and hoping a clam finds itself in the way.
"You have to think like a dowitcher," Dick Anderson told me, the first time I went digging for surf clams with him. The dowitcher, a dumpy shorebird one sees drilling its bill into the sand, is actually looking for worms, not clams, but the principle's the same. "The more you prod, the more you find." On my best days, I've collected just under one bushel.
Low tide was still forty-five minutes away, but the water had already receded well beyond its usual limit, leaving two graceful arcs on either side of a spit of sand. Off the farther one, the first clammers were wading as far out as they could. I started backing out into the waves, sinking my fork in the sand every six inches or so. Contact with something hard, three or four inches down, was what we were looking for. I connected almost at once.
Most likely, it was one of three things: a sand dollar, a stone, or a clam. Sand dollars are surprisingly resistant. I have turned them up unbroken, although sometimes the fork will go straight through one. By now, I reckoned, I could feel the difference, but the other alternative, a rock, is closer to a clamshell in density. This time, it was a decent-sized clam balancing on the prongs of my fork that emerged from the waves. Unlike the white shells left by the gulls on the beach, it was practically black.
Beaches may appear uniform, but below the surface anything goes. In one area, for a few square feet, each time I withdrew my fork, a dozen or so little sandworms came squiggling in with the waves. And a single step made all the difference between a Spisula desert and a pocket where almost every probe brought forth a prize.
I was levering something out of the sand when a succession of larger waves rolled in. What had been visible in six inches of water was suddenly lost below a yard of roiling surf. The effort to trap it with my foot almost threw me in, and I plunged my whole arm into the water to grab the clam before it was lost in the backwash.
After all that, it was so small - about two inches - that I tossed it back in to grow some more. Unfortunately for the clam, a herring gull swooped in and carried it off in its beak, pursued by its black-backed cousin. Unfortunately for me, I had forgotten to bring the plastic bag I usually tie to my belt for holding my booty. Each time I got lucky, I had to wade back to deposit the clam in my bucket on the beach. It didn't take long for the gulls to catch on, and as it filled, we frequently had to drive them off with shouts and yells.
With the tide advancing over the sand again, people started straggling back with their spoils. At the top of the beach, we put down our buckets, and Dick picked up one of the clams, its two shells ajar. We were going to have clam fritters for breakfast.
Holding it carefully so as not to startle it into snapping shut, he inserted a knife into one end. First one, then the other of the thick adductor muscles were quickly severed. Too late, it tried to . . . well, clam up. (Note to would-be gourmets: if the muscle doesn't contract, the clam is already dead and better left uneaten.) A considerable amount of brine spilled out over the sand, which at home you want to catch in a container. "It keeps the clams from drying out when I freeze them," Dick says. "And it adds wicked good flavor when I cook them for pasta."
Running the blade inside the other shell, he soon had all the soft tissue in the palm of his hand: two adductor muscles, the foot with which the clam digs itself into the sand, and a rim of meat ending in the siphon, all of which you want to keep. Cleaning the clam consists of freeing these edible parts from the rest, basically the slimy envelope that lies inside the shell and the stomach that nestles into the foot like a multi-colored marble. As he pried it out with his thumb, a curious clear tube, an inch or so long, popped out.
"The first time someone cleans one of these things, I always get a call, `Hey, Dick, is that some kind of worm?' " His voice expresses concern. "But it's part of the digestion, something to do with enzymes."
We set up the table like celebrants preparing the altar. Mixing bowl, fork, salt and pepper, frying pan. Olive oil, one egg, Ritz crackers, chopped up clams. Having mixed the egg into the clams, Dick crumbled in the crackers, reminding me of the Eucharist. In no time, they were sizzling on a Coleman stove, and a most tempting aroma was wafting across the beach from the stove.
My stomach, un-breakfasted, growled. I cut some slices off the loaf of bread, and Dick slid a crispy clam cake onto each one. Everyone knows that nothing tastes better than a meal in the fresh air, but those clam cakes would be a hit in a restaurant anywhere.
An elderly man pulling a garden cart up from the water stopped to chat. "The last new moon," he recalls, "there was a northeaster. Clams were lying everywhere, tossed in by the storm. A friend of mine just drove his truck onto the beach and shoveled them in. Nearly filled it." He looked at the modest haul in his cart. "Plenty of times, I don't get anything, but it's just great to be out, isn't it?"
Out of the Shell
If you happen to find yourself with a bucket of these clams, here are two of Dick Anderson's favorite clam recipes. Note: the number of clams will vary greatly depending on size.
Makes six to eight Fritters
1 large egg
1 cup chopped surf clams
1 cup coarsely crushed Ritz crackers (about twenty-five crackers)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
In a medium mixing bowl, beat the egg lightly and add the clams and the Ritz crackers. Season the mixture with salt and pepper, and, using your hands, form it into six to eight patties. In a frying pan, heat the olive oil and cook the patties over medium-high heat until golden brown, about three minutes per side. Do not overcook, or the clams get "wicked tough."
LINGUINE WITH CLAM SAUCE
1/4 cup olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
pinch of red pepper flakes
1/2 pound linguine
1 cup chopped surf clams,
1/4 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons butter
fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish
salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a large frying pan, saut` the olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes until fragrant but not browned. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the linguine according to package directions. To the olive oil, garlic, and pepper flakes add the chopped clams, a half cup of the reserved clam juice, and wine. Simmer for three minutes. Remove the clams with a slotted spoon and set aside. Continue simmering the liquid until it has reduced to a slightly thicker consistency, three to five minutes. When the linguine is ready, add the clams back into the liquid, along with the butter. Pour the clam sauce over the pasta, toss, and add chopped parsley. Salt and pepper to taste.
White Clam Pizza
Serves two to four
1 package store-bought pizza dough
1/4 cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
8 surf clams, opened, rinsed under
cold water, shucked, and chopped, reserving liquid
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano cheese
1/4 shredded mozzarella cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400°. On a baking sheet, spread out the pizza dough according to package directions. In a small skillet, heat the olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes for thirty seconds. Spread the olive oil and garlic mixture over the pizza dough, leaving an inch around the edge for the crust. Place the chopped clams on the pizza, add a few tablespoons of the clam liquid, and sprinkle with the cheeses. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bake the pizza for twelve to fifteen minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. Serve immediately.
Baked Surf Clams
Serves four to six
12 Surf clams, opened, rinsed under cold water, and shucked
1 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
Preheat the oven to 350°. Arrange the twelve bottom shells with the clams on a baking sheet and set aside. In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, parsley, and garlic. Slowly stir in the olive oil until thoroughly combined. Spoon the filling onto each clam and spread it evenly to cover the entire shell. Bake until the topping begins to brown slightly, six to eight minutes, depending on the size of the clams. Place the clams under the broiler and cook until golden brown, about two minutes. Serve immediately.
- By: Thomas Urquhart