Wednesday, August 7, 2013

An Alternative Clambake


This column, adapted for Mixing in Mobile, originally was published on May 23, 2007 in the Kootenai Valley Record 
       Few meals scream summer as much as a clambake. When the weather heats up, I have a hard time avoiding immersing myself into a daydream of a breezy, sandy beach, a raucous group of friends, and a fragrant steaming pot of lobster, mussels, clams, potatoes and corn. In Montana, fresh Maine lobster was but a distant memory, as was the Atlantic Ocean, so some improvisation was needed, but the outcome is no less delicious, (and much more affordable). Fresh mussels and clams are easily available and in season, and at very reasonable prices. Some people have an aversion to cooking fresh seafood: their concerns might vary from squeamishness, food safety, or simple uncertainty and a lack of experience might prevent them from attempting it. What the cautious cook needs is a healthy dose of self confidence and a great recipe, both of which I hope to impart in this article.
       To begin, one must select the shellfish. Freshness is of the utmost importance, and that mantra remains standard for any ingredient in any recipe. Mussels and clams are both used here, but if desired, one may use just one or the other and double the quantity. When choosing the clams and mussels, look for unblemished and tightly closed shells. Usually the meat counter employees will spray the shellfish and then bag them, for the water forces the lazy bivalves to close up and the unlucky ones, who have already met their demise, will be removed. If not, be sure to select tightly closed clams and mussels. When you get them home, take them out of the plastic bag and place them in a bowl covered with a damp paper towel. Some people like to soak them in salt water, which prompts the shellfish to purge themselves of sand and grit, but I have found that grit and sand stays at a minimum. Do not immerse them in fresh water, they will soon expire. Throw out any that are open and whose shells are cracked. Once you have done this, you are ready to go. 
      One wonderful thing about this recipe is that you can adjust it to suit your own tastes and preferences. The essential ingredients are tomatoes, garlic and white wine (or chicken broth) but the rest is fair game to improvise, depending on what is on hand in the pantry. You can add or omit the onions, shallots, parsley or basil, crushed red pepper, and finish it with a squeeze of lemon if you want. It is possible, and equally delicious, to use red wine instead of white, or omit the alcohol altogether and opt for chicken broth. The beauty of this type of recipe is that soon you will discover your own magic combination that is perfect for you and yours.
Steamed Clams and Mussels in Tomato-Garlic Broth 
Serves 2-4 as an entrée
1 pound live littleneck clams, scrubbed
1 pounds live mussels, beards removed and scrubbed
1 tbsp sea salt
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil 
3 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped
3 small shallots or ½ small onion, minced  
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
1/2 bottle (750ml) Sauvignon Blanc or other white wine or 2 cups chicken broth 
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons basil or parsley, roughly chopped
Crusty bread, for serving
In a large skillet or pot set over medium-high heat, melt the butter or olive oil. Add the shallots and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes, then add the garlic and sauté for two minutes, stirring frequently. Add the tomatoes, clams, mussels, wine or broth, and cover with a tight fitting lid and steam over low heat until clams and mussels have opened, about 5 to 10 minutes. Garnish with herbs and a squeeze of lemon, if desired. Discard any clams or mussels that have not opened. Transfer to serving bowls and ladle with broth. Serve hot with crusty bread to soak up the broth. 
            Remember, the only mistake you can make in the kitchen is not cooking at all. All you need is the desire to create. As the famous chef and food writer James Beard says, "The secret of good cooking is, first, having a love of it… If you're convinced that cooking is drudgery, you're never going to be good at it, and you might as well warm up something frozen." So, my advice to you is: love it, create it, and enjoy it.