The Great Seafood Treats of Late Summer, Part I: Soft-Shell Clams

After I managed to stabilize my finances with the help of the Orion Code, the business ideas started to flow. Of course my obsession with food and taste is always stronger than everything else so i knew I’m gonna get back to this. Therefore I’ve decided to get the ROSENGARTEN REPORT back! I’ve found the best possible crew and business partners to make this possible. Surely you’ll enjoy the new “version” of the ROSENGARTEN REPORT. And an article worth getting in there is this one, including a steamed soft shell clam step-by-step recipe.

There is a feel to the classic late-summer dinner in the northeast of the U.S., that glorious repast during which we notice that the sun’s going down a little earlier—and that a woolie might be required after it does! Bittersweet is always the key note: appreciation for how good we’ve had it recently, sorrow for the impending dread of Daylight Savings Time. Sure, the festivities involve beer: the more beer, the more bittersweet! They usually involve grilling as well, as we begin to contemplate the depressing issue of winter grill storage. To me, however, in my many years of Northeast outdoor Septembering, there is one type of food above all that captures the mood of the season: seafood. Some of the clams that crossed my table during summer were dug out of the mud, by me; some of the lobsters were pulled in from traps owned by friends; some of the flounders and bluefish were caught by line, my line. That’s not gonna happen come November. And though the quality of wintertime seafood and fish will be just fine—sometimes better!—the fruits of the sea won’t be nearly as accessible. Every fisherman, even commercial fishermen, likes to fish in summer—assuring that our warm-weather bushels are always prodigiously overflowing. Light, simply prepared seafood and fish—scream “summer,” until the seasonal sun goes down.

Over the next two weeks—as I watch the twilight creep in!—I’m going to tell you all about my favorite ways of savoring seafood at the end of summer.

This week, we begin with a treat that has wildly passionate devotées (of which I am one)—but is ignored by the largest part of the American population. I sing of steamers, those miraculous soft-shell clams that have engendered so much confusion—and yielded so much pleasure!

Most Americans everywhere, even deep in the middle of the country, far from the coasts, have heard about steamed clams. It’s bar food! But the confusion arises from the fact that most between-the-coast bars and restaurants steam open hard-shell clams! These are the types of clams that are best eaten raw, usually called “little necks” or “cherrystones.” When consumed raw, they have a slightly chewy, terrifically satisfying sushi-bar kind of texture. They are even satisfying when quickly cooked, as in Clams Oreganata. But when you go all the way and steam them until the shells swing open…they become texturally nasty. “Rubber” would be the most accurate description! Not worth eating, in my opinion. But I suspect that the hard-shell clams ship much better than the soft-shell clams, and that’s why they’re in national distribution. If you grew up in, say, Pittsburgh…you may never have even seen any steamed clams except for the hard-shell ones!

Enter the soft-shell clam…also known as the steamer clam! The most important species name is mya arenaria, though there’s a smattering of other soft-shell species on both coasts. Mya arenaria has its stronghold in northeast waters, particularly Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York (Long Island’s a hotbed!). Unlike the hard-shell clam, it is oval, elongated, lighter in weight, lighter in exterior color, and…of course…the much thinner shell has a kind of “softness” to it, which is often described as “brittleness;” you can break it in your hand. The soft-shell clam also has a “pisser” sticking out of it: a siphon that allows it to take in and filter seawater. Hard-shell clams have ‘em too, but their siphons are much, much smaller—because hard-shell clams do not bury themselves deeply in the sand. The soft-shell clam goes much deeper, and therefore needs a longer siphon to find water.

Soft-shell clams and their “pissers,” waiting to be steamed

But don’t get the idea that you can eat those “soft shells” themselves. A soft-shell clam is not like a soft-shell crab, which one enjoys shell and all; you do not eat the shell of a soft-shell clam!

What you do eat is plenty reward: after being steamed, the belly is extremely tender, with an incomparable sweetness if the clam is really fresh. Additionally, the flavor of mya arenaria is different! If the hard-shell clam is all about brine, the soft-shell clam brings a kind of herbal nuttiness to the party.

These clams are so damned good, in fact, that few chefs diverge from the classic New England preparation of them: steamed in water with celery stalks and parsley. That’s it. But there are a few rituals in the prep and the eating.

STEP #1: The first thing you do is drop into a large pot 4 cleaned stalks of celery, and a firmly packed cup of coarsely chopped parsley. Add 4 cups of water, and bring to a boil.

Water in pot, with celery and parsley

STEP #2: Wash off 4 lbs. of soft-shell clams, and add them to the water after it boils. Cover tightly, shaking the pot every few minutes. The clams are done as soon as they swing open, about 4-6 minutes.

STEP #3: Remove clams and place in large serving bowl. Strain broth into serving cups, making sure to leave silt behind in the cooking pot.

STEP #4: Also provide each diner with a small bowl of melted butter.

Steamed clams, broth and melted butter ready to go.

STEP # 5: And now the best part! Each diner grabs a clam from the communal bowl of steamed clams. You grab the belly, pisser and all, out of the shell, discarding the shell. There’s a dark skin around the pisser; I like to peel it off and discard, leaving the whole clam (including the peeled pisser) for delicious eating. Next you dunk the clam in the hot broth, to wash off any clinging silt. Finally, the hot, cleaned clam gets dunked in the melted butter, then eaten. Glorious!

As you go, you might also want to sip on the clam broth from your individual cup, which is also mightily scrumptious.

I find that 4 lbs. of steamers is a good amount for four people having a steamer first course. Halve it if you just want a taste. Double it if it’s to be a main course.

Most good seafood stores in the northeast carry soft-shell clams for steaming. But if yours doesn’t, or if you’re not in the northeast…it is well worth talking this situation over with the fishmonger. He can get them for you, with a few days notice. It’s worth the fuss!!!!!!

For most of my life, soft-shell clams at the fish store cost about 2 bucks a pound, max. Uh-oh. Times have changed. I think part of it is that many Americans have finally realized how delicious these things are. Whatever the reason, I paid dearly for this week’s batch: ten bucks a pound! The purchase was made at a fish store on the upper east side of Manhattan, so I’m sure you can find ‘em for a hell of a lot less. Happy clamming!