Monday, March 25, 2013

Clams in Spicy Coconut-Lime Sauce



My favorite thing about clams is that they wear so many hats.
No-- not that kind of hat. But they do relate to so many parts of life! For some, clams evoke memories of spending summer days by the ocean. For others, clams serve as a reminder of what they learned about in biology about the evolution of living organism (something that I have completely forgotten). For yet another group, they conjure up thoughts about an amazing dinner (pasta alle vognole, anyone?). No matter what comes to mind when you think of clams, it's hard to deny that they make a lovely meal. This week I cooked fresh clams for the first time, using Asian flavors like ginger and coconut milk as a broth.

About Clams
Clams are shellfish (hence the shell), and in the US seafood industry they are usually classified based on size and region.

The first main division is between soft-shell and hard-shell clams. Soft-shell clams look quite similar to a hard-shell clam, but the shell is significantly more fragile. Not to be confused with soft-shell crabs, the shells of these molluscs should not be eaten.

Hard-shell clams are more common because there are so many more types. Reluctant Gourmet has a fantastic summary of clam varieties: size, coast, and methods of preparation.

A big thing to consider when cooking clams is that you need a reputable source for them. Please-- please don't get them from a grungy market because they are on sale. Clams are called filter feeders, meaning they hang out on the bottom of the ocean floor and filter in and out all the stuff that comes their way. Without scaring anyone away from trying clams, just be sure that "stuff" doesn't get into your meal. I'll explain the cleaning process along with the recipe.

Scrub before you soak, rinse after you soak.
This eliminates all the grit. Read on for more.

Choosing the Recipe
Since my priority with this recipe was to memorize how to cook clams rather than memorize a specific recipe, I had a lot of flexibility. My first instinct was to do a clam pizza or pasta alle vognole, but I couldn't help but want to branch out. I knew that I wanted to serve the dish with the clams still in their shell but accompanied by something hearty (carbs, basically), and I wanted some strong flavors to go with it. I flipped through my cookbooks and searched online and eventually found a recipe on Epicurious that made me smile: Clams in Spicy Coconut-Lime Sauce. Perfect! I could leave the clams in their shells, serve it on some wonderfully sticky rice, and rest on the strong and complimentary ingredients such as coconut, lime, jalapeño, and ginger.

Memorizing the Recipe
I never knew that preparing clams would be so simple! Since this week's recipe emerged from a desire to have an idea of what to do with fresh clams, the memorized part was almost too easy. Clean, tap, put over heat with some liquid, cover, and seven minutes later you have a lovely seafood dish. I didn't mess with shucking this time around. If the clams were going to be kind enough to open right up for me, I'd take the favor.

As for the actual recipe, I completely botched the shopping list and forgot jalapeño and fresh ginger. Oops. I made a few substitutions (listed in the recipe with the ingredients) and found that cayenne pepper and powdered ginger did the trick to add some spice and zest. Next time I think I'll use the original ingredients.

Step 1: Cook shallots & spices
Step 2: Add liquid
Step 3: Add clams, cover, and boil 7 minutes
Step 4: Keep opened clams & add blanched veggies

The Verdict
This was definitely the first time I have ever cooked a living creature. I'm not usually one to mess with others' lives, but I may have found my exception (further exceptions, like mussels, will probably be coming). It is just too simple. The cleaning process, even though I had to shorten the soaking time a little bit, was a success; I only encountered one gritty clam, and none of my roommates did. The clams were delicious with the slightly sweet, slightly spicy, warm broth (it was more brothy than saucy, in my opinion), and adding snowpeas to the pot made the meal nice and balanced. The dish had protein, carbs, and veggies, we had fruit for dessert, and my dairy came from the excess of cheese that I ate throughout the week. It made my roommate's top five recipes list, though he is biased due to his Bostonian origins. Including soaking time and prep, the meal took 40 minutes to prepare. With a couple of large pots, it would be easy to double or triple the recipe too.

4 simple liquids for the sauce


The Recipe
Clams in Spicy Coconut-Lime Sauce
adapted from Epicurious, with cleaning instructions adapted from The Kitchn
Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients: 
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 3 large shallots, chopped
  • 1 tbsp chopped peeled fresh ginger or 1 tsp powdered ginger
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • 2 lbs littleneck clams
  • 1 1/2 cups bottled clam juice
  • 1 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 cup diced canned tomatoes with juices
  • 1 jalapeño chile, seeded and chopped, or 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp lime zest
  • 3 tbsp fresh lime juice
  • 2 green onions, sliced
  • 1 lb snow peas
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeds removed and julienned
  • 2/3 cup salt (for cleaning)
  • 1/2 cup cornmeal (for cleaning)
Cleaning:
  • Scrub clams shells with a stiff brush under cool running water.
  • If any shells are open, tap them against a hard surface. If they don't close shut, discard them.
  • Examine each shell, discarding any extra beard hairs and any cracked or damaged shells.
  • Place in a bowl of cool water so the water is about 1 inch higher than the clams.
  • Add 2/3 cup of salt and 1/2 cup cornmeal for every 8 cups of water and mix around.
  • Let sit for about 1 hour. 
  • Remove clams with a slotted spoon, tongs, or your hand, and place in a colander. Give them a final rinse with cool water.
  • After your final rinse, the clams are ready to cook.
Preparation:
  • Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add the snow peas, blanch for one minute, drain, and immediately place in extremely cold water. Let sit for two minutes, drain, and set to the side.
  • Heat vegetable oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat.
  • Add chopped shallots and saute for about three minutes, until tender.
  • Add ginger and turmeric and stir for one minute.
  • Add clams, clam juice, coconut milk, tomatoes with their juices, jalapeño or cayenne pepper, and lime zest and bring to a boil.
  • Cover and cook until clams open, about 7 minutes. Discard any clams that don't open.
  • Stir in lime juice, snow peas, and bell pepper and sprinkle with green onions. Serve over sticky white rice.
I recommend having tongs and a large spoon available for serving
so guests can take out the clams they want and get the flavorful broth

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