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Gather folks round for a bowl of steaming clams

This is a great time of year to invite a few folks over and gather around a bowl of freshly cooked steamer clams. It's good eating at its friendliest: a straightforward culinary event requiring nothing more than hearty appetites and a generous supply of great-quality, crusty bread to sop up flavorful juices in the bowl.

The clams to use for this fun and delicious activity are so-called "steamer" clams. That's actually how you'll find them labeled in most fish markets. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the clams you're most likely to encounter within this category are the Pacific littleneck clam, also known as the butter clam and Manila clam. But don't get too wrapped around the idea of having to know what kind of clams you're purchasing because chances are your shellfish provider won't be able to tell you. They should know where they come from, though, which in many cases will be Washington, as there's a thriving commercial clamming industry going on up there.

Here's all you need to know to get started:

1. You're dealing with a live organism. And you want them to be that way right up until you cook them. So BEFORE cooking, discard any clams that aren't closed (or don't close when you nudge or tap them on their shells).

2. If you're not using immediately, then gently lay the clams in a shallow bowl with a damp towel covering them and store at about 37 F (refrigerator temperature). They'll actually last for several days this way. They need oxygen, so do NOT keep in an airtight container and, most definitely, do not cover them with tap water.

Cleaning clams: If you buy steamers at a store, as opposed to digging them up yourself, they're likely to come extremely clean. But it never hurts to give them a thorough inspection and scrubbing prior to cooking. Also some folks prefer soaking their clams in fresh water for 10 minutes before cooking, which sometimes encourages them to spit out the sand they are holding, but I rarely do this.

3. What you cook your clams in is really up to you. To get launched, I highly recommend trying the straightforward, fairly classic approach: wine, garlic and a little bit of seasoning. But variations abound, so don't be shy about creating your own specialty of the house. From extra-garlicky to smoky-hot with chipotle chilies, the outcome can be anything from subtle to fiery.

4. It's that simple. Remember, all you're doing is exposing some fresh and succulent bivalves to a bit of flavored liquid and heating them until they open up. Throw that pot of cooked-up steamers into the center of a people-packed dinner table and discover just how easy it is to please a group of friends.

5. Just remember to tell your fellow diners that if they come upon a cooked clam that hasn't opened to toss it aside unopened. (If you get curious and decide to open one of these guys, you'll typically find they're just filled with sand).

Here's how Harry, Annette and the gang at Bay Street Crab Co. (1335 N.W. Ninth St., Corvallis) do it. You can't get much more straightforward than this. If you read through all of the recipes below, then you'll know that all bets are off as far as what else you can cook with steamers. But feel free to stick with what is recommended here before you strip off your training wheels

For an entree course, figure on at least eight to 10 clams per person. Rinse the clams a few times to remove sand. Pour some inexpensive, dry, white wine over the clams in the pot — it doesn't even have to cover the clams.

Toss in several cloves of garlic and a squeeze of fresh lemon (now drop that squeezed wedge in the pot). Add a bay leaf and sprinkling of Italian seasoning (if you feel like it) and some salt and pepper.

Put the lid on the pot. Turn the burner up to high. Once you see steam coming out from under the lid, the clams are open and ready to eat.

Throw the pot on the table (or spoon clams and their liquid into a large bowl) and serve with large quantities of great-quality bread and a delicious salad. Alternatively, spoon clam mixture over cooked pasta, such as linguini.

Make sure everyone has an adequately sized soup bowl with spoons and forks, plus a couple of extra bowls in the middle of the table for empty shells.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can email her at janrd@proaxis.com.