Memories of hoary shucking knives and chowders past.
A sign outside a gift shop in Aquebogue seemed to tease the dedicated locavores of the East End: Jelly Beans Have Arrived. It is, we guess, a sign of spring and pretty funny. But as we know, healthier options are in season year round, particularly our native mollusks who remain fat and tender into late spring. They don’t turn spawny, which some don’t mind anyway, until early summer.
In our house, before littlenecks and cherrystones were widely considered a delicacy, all types of clams, even steamers, went into our family’s chowder kettle in spring. Now we mainly use the meaty chowder clams, which are best straight from the sandy beds. These savory shellfish are a treat, but shucking them demands hardware gloves and a sharp, sturdy clam knife to minimize the potential for stitches. Canned clams are actually quite good, but clams bought shucked, fresh or frozen from your nearby fishmonger are unbeatable.
Clams are dug from under the sand (or sandy mud) with a rake. The rake we used off our boat in Great South Bay in the ’50s opened and closed like tongs; the basket that held the clams looks like a giant butterfly clip. Modern rakes may be small one-man or large backbreaking commercial straight or curved rakes with a basket attached to contain the catch. Some are adjustable, to conform to local minimum size regulations; the teenies slip through the tongs. Local clammers stand in a low boat, bending painfully over the side to rake up the crop, or donning rubber suits or hip boots to wade through the beds. Either way, it’s no job for sissies!
As youngsters, digging clams for supper at the beach was great sport. Who needed a rake? We had our toes! Most summer weekends, we lived aboard the family boat, docked at isolated Great Gun Beach. Although Friday night wasn’t religiously fish night, we knew clam chowder would be on the menu, just as many restaurants offered Catholic customers the chowder alternative to chicken noodle soup.
We raced each other for the shoals on the Moriches Bay side, wading in until the water was arm-length deep. The little kids stayed close with pails. The older children wriggled their toes down into the sand, feeling for the distinctive finely corrugated shell that said we’d hit paydirt. Quickly digging down into the silt before the clam could burrow deeper, we’d lock our fingers around our prey. Sometimes we’d really have to wrestle with a giant quahog. Peering through the green water to avoid stepping on horseshoe crabs, or razor clams (that more than once caused us to leave bloody footprints along the dock), we gathered enough clams for appetizers and chowder. Moms and dads would open and serve the one-bite gems with homemade cocktail sauce, while the heartier clams soaked in seawater to leak excess sand. Later, those big babies were attacked with a hoary clam knife, while we applauded the shuckers’ prowess. The first aid kit, however, was always handy.
We’d all diced and sliced our share of vegetables by the time the chopped clam meat and juices were in the chowder pot on the galley stove. As the soup simmered, we kids dove off the boats and dock to rinse-off before supper. Once the salt air was thick with the aromatic lures drifting from nearly every boat, there was no need for a dinner bell. We piled the oyster crackers on top and chow-dered down!
Joan Bernstein lives in East Moriches and likes to recall the clams of her youth.
2 dozen chowder clams
6 slices bacon
11/2 cups chopped onions
11/2 cups chopped carrots
1 cup chopped celery
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
(I prefer Red Pack)
3 cups water
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
4 large potatoes, cubed
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
Steam the clams in a large pot and reserve the liquid, which should equal at least 3 cups. Chop the clams.
Dice the bacon and cook in a large pot over medium-high heat until slightly crisp. Thick bacon works best. Add the onions and sauté until transparent. Stir in the carrots and celery; cook for about a minute. Add the rest of the ingredients except the potatoes and parsley. Bring to a boil. Add the potatoes. Simmer about 30 minutes, until the potatoes are cooked.
Remove the bay leaf; stir in the parsley. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot with oyster crackers.
SPRINGTIME EAST END SEAFOOD STEW
This is in the style of a bouillabaisse but with springtime ingredients from the East End, including springtime onions, shallots, cipollini onions and young leeks. If ramps are available, they can be grilled and used as a garnish. The boullabaisse can have Shinnecock clams and local mussels, and the fish can be Block Island codfish or Peconic scallops.
1 cup olive oil
1 cup shallots, half-moon sliced
6 young leeks, ¼-inch sliced, washed 3 times
1 cup cipollini onions, peeled
2 stalks celery, ¼-inch diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
6 tomatoes, prepared in either of the following ways: concassé: blanch for 30 seconds in boiling water, ice, peel, de-seed; or using canned plum tomatoes, drained and seeded
5 cups fish stock or clam juice
11/2 cups Yukon potatoes, ½-inch cubed, blanched till tender
4 cups white wine
¼ teaspoon saffron
1 ounce thyme, minced
1 ounce Italian parsley, minced
3 bay leaves
1 pound shrimp (21-25), no shells, deveined
11/2 pounds lobster meat, ¼-inch diced
11/2 pounds local fish, cut bite size
In an 8-quart or larger stainless-steel pot on medium heat, add (1/2 cup) olive oil till hot. Then add shallots and cipollini onion, garlic, celery and leeks. Sweat for 15 minutes, making sure not to brown.
Add saffron and (2 cups) white wine, simmer 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and clam juice or fish stock. Bring up to a simmer. Now add bay leaf, thyme and parsley. Simmer for 30 minutes. Add Yukon potatoes. Adjust seasoning with salt and ground black pepper.
Have your shellfish and fish prepped. In a large sauté pan on medium heat, add ½ cup olive oil. Once hot, add fish pieces, cook 2 minutes, then add shrimp and cook for 2 more minutes. Add lobster meat, cook 1 minute. Add seafood to your soup.
In your favorite soup bowl, ladle your soup. Serve bread or crostini on the side and dip into soup as desired.
This story was originally published in April 2013.