Years ago, when I worked at the Black Dog Tavern on Martha’s Vineyard, I got myself up to Tisbury Town Hall and applied for a clamming permit. I could spend an entire (and rare) free afternoon clamming in Lagoon Pond, between Tisbury and Oak Bluffs. I’d borrow Charlie Esposito’s row boat, get a little bucket of ice and put a couple of beers in the ice. Once on board, I’d row up to the narrow part of the pond. When I was in knee-deep water, I’d jump out and tie the boat’s mooring line around my waist and start walking. The best way to find clams is to walk in your bare feet—very slowly and wiggling your toes in the sand the whole time—until you feel what you think is a clam. Then loosen the clam up with your toes and bend down and dig it out. After a while, you could tell the clams from the rocks. Clams always dig in with their hinged side down and tapered side up, so you knew you hit pay dirt (or pay sand) when you felt that tapered side and not something round or bumpy. Once you found one clam there were always at least a few more in the immediate vicinity. A born-and-bred Vinyarder once told me this was the “momma clam, daddy clam and the little baby clams.” I think he was pulling my leg. One important step I forgot to mention up top: put a clam knife in the boat too. Every once in a while, stop to give your toes a break, swish a clam around in the half-melted ice to rinse the sand off, open it and slurp it up. That’s what the beer’s for.
Unlike shrimp sizes (Jumbo! Extra Colossal!!), clam terminology is supposed to be cut-and-dry. Most hard shell eastern clams are quahogs, but they’re marketed according to their size. Working up in size from Little Necks through Top Necks, Cherrystones and Quahogs there is are specific (sort of) guidelines for sizing and marketing clams. I have seen Little Necks that I am sure should be labeled ‘Top Necks,’ Top Necks passing as Cherrystones and so on. What I was digging for up on the Vineyard would most likely be called Little Necks or Top Necks. Following is my attempt to classify clam sizes. The sizes and weights are an average number culled from many sources. The end result jives pretty well with my experience in the world of clams.
No matter what size clam you settle on, make sure the two shells are clamped tightly together and not gaping. If they are slightly open, pinch them closed; if they stay that way, they’re fine. If the shells open back up, move along. Once you get them home, scrub the clams well with a sturdy plastic brush under cold running water, removing as much sand as possible from the crevices. Drain them well.
Little Necks: about 1½ to 2 inches across at the widest; 10 to 12 per pound
Top Necks: about 2 ½ to 3 inches across; 5 to 7 per pound
Cherrystones: about 3 to 4 inches across; about 4 per pound
Quahogs/Chowder: Any thing larger than a cherrystone; 8 ounces each and up
IMHO, Little Necks and Top Necks are best for eating raw, grilling or steaming quickly in just about any liquid you can think of (see grilling and steaming suggestions below). Cherrystones are best for stuffing and quahogs are good for chowder, unless you like a simpler version, made with Little Necks).
While we’re on the topic of food plucked from the sea (or from the brackish in the case of Lagoon Pond), here’s a site worth checking out: seafoodwatch.org. You’ll find not only advice on which species of seafood is the ‘best choice’ (or not-so-good) choice, but information on sustainable fisheries in general. I check back every once in a while as the information is under constant review and changes often.
Grilled Littleneck Clams with Lemon and Pepper
Cooking fresh hard-shell clams like littlenecks on a grill just until they pop open is an effortless opener to more substantial barbecue fare. Before the first clam hits the grill, melt some butter, season it liberally with cracked black pepper and fresh lemon juice, and keep it warm on the side of the grill. Rest the clams on the grill so they stay balanced during cooking. Cook just until the shells pop open. The shells will be hot—remove the clams with a pair of tongs, spilling as little of the juice inside the shell as possible. Dab a little pepper-lemon butter over the clam and you’re good to go. Change the seasoning in the butter as you like: Curry Butter, Sriracha Butter, Cilantro-Lime Butter…
Littlenecks in Broth
This Asian-y version of steamed clams can be adapted just about any way you like. Sub white wine for the liquid and add fresh herbs and garlic; start with coconut milk, add sliced chiles, lemongrass and cilantro or use a light tomato sauce, fresh basil and oregano as a steaming liquid.
Makes 4 servings
18 Little Neck, Top Neck or other small hard-shell clams, scrubbed and rinsed (see above)
2 cups store-bought or homemade chicken broth or one 8-ounce bottle clam juice and 1 cup water
2 slices lime
6 thin slices peeled ginger
1 tablespoon sherry or 2 teaspoons Bragg Liquid Aminos
Large pinch crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Trim the scallions and slice them thin, keeping the green and white parts separate.
Combine the broth, lime slices, ginger, sherry, crushed red pepper, and white part of the scallions in a 3- to 4-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Add the clams and butter, increase the heat to high, and boil the clams, covered, until all are opened, about 5 minutes. Shake the pan once or twice. Discard any clams that don’t open.
Divide the clams among 4 warmed serving bowls and ladle the broth along with the ginger, scallions and lime over the clams. Sprinkle with scallion greens and serve at once.