Have I mentioned I’m originally from New England? Thought so. This simple fact gives me license to bitch about the lack of a decent clam shack in Seattle. Make that the West Coast. Sure, we have oyster bars like Walrus and Carpenter, Frank’s, and Elliott’s Oyster House. But I’m talking about clam shacks, the sort of place where a dozen oysters on the half shell can commingle peacefully with a greasy basket of fried clams or a lobster…err…Dungeness crab roll. The sort of place with picnic tables, plastic tablecloths, and beer, lots of it.
I was talking about this problem with Seattle’s house forager, Jeremy Faber, recently. Faber’s a New Yorker so he knows about these things, too. Tried as we could, we couldn’t come up with a single clam shack worthy of the name in the Puget Sound region. Despite an embarrassment of shellfish riches, clam shack culture just doesn’t seem to exist here. Go east, though, and you won’t have any trouble finding it in Rhode Island or Massachusetts or even New Jersey. The clam shack is a venerable Atlantic Coast tradition and I miss it.
So is the clam bake. When I lived on Martha’s Vineyard we used to get a mess of clams, build a bonfire on the beach, and steam the clams right in the coals with seaweed and a bunch of other good stuff. Corn on the cob, f’rinstance.
I guess it’s a summertime East Coast thing. And so is this bowl of soup, which is a virtual New England clam bake in a bowl. Except it uses horse clams. That’s a West Coast thing. A big-ass clam for sure. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of the horse clam (also called a gaper). It can trick a geoduck digger occasionally, and the meat isn’t good for much other than chowder or fritters. But if you’re making a chowder, you only need one or two good-sized horse clams to close the deal. Corn sweetens the deal, as does red bell pepper.
There are two species of horse clams commonly dug from Alaska to California, Tresus nuttallii and Tresus capax. You can distinguish a horse clam by its shell, which is almost diamond-shaped and doesn’t completely close over the siphon, lending it the name gaper. Like geoducks, they’re found in the lower tidal zone of muddy beaches; unlike geoducks, the tip of a horse clam’s siphon isn’t smooth and often has barnacles or bony plates attached (note the barnacle in the photo). Here in Washington I suspect many horse clams are sport harvested by accident while diggers are going after geoducks or butter clams. That’s certainly the case with these bad boys, unearthed in a case of mistaken identity during a recent ‘duck-a-thon.
Horse clams, as I said, are big-ass clams—and this is a kick-ass chowder. Go make some. But first dig some. If you serve it to your West Coast significant-other-partner-hyphen you might just get some. Oh, and if you know of a half-decent clam shack in the Northwest, leave a comment.
Clam and Corn Chowder
2 horse clams, cleaned and sliced (or 2 cups chopped clams)
2 cups corn (about 4 ears)
3 slices slab bacon, diced
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced (reserve sliced green tops)
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
2 cups peeled and diced potatoes
2 cups stock (chicken or clam broth, or both)
2 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream or half and half
salt and white pepper
1. Saute diced bacon in heavy-bottomed pot until rendered and nearly crispy. Add onions and scallions and saute until translucent. Add potatoes, corn, and red peppers and cook together several minutes. Add a knob of butter if necessary.
2. Add chicken stock. Simmer until potatoes soften.
3. At this point I like to give the immersion blender a quick workout to thicken and blend the chowder. I blend a quarter to a third of the chowder in the pot, leaving the rest chunky.
4. Stir in clams with their juice plus reserved sliced scallions. Add milk and cream. Simmer a few more minutes until clams thoroughly cooked. Adjust seasonings.
Serve with bread or oyster crackers.