My dad is a man of few words. He enjoys—truly savors—going to work, coming home, cooking with my mom, and taking it easy. His signature dishes are always full of personality, even if he’s cooking them quietly: Rabbit with capers; pasta with sardines, breadcrumbs, and olives; baked clams with paprika and garlic. Those are just the top three. Most of his dishes emerge unannounced. He’ll get an idea, and if he needs ingredients he’ll walk out to the car without a word and come back with overflowing grocery bags. It can turn into a comedy of errors if my mom already had a meal planned.
He communicates more through food than he probably ever has via conversation. This is probably most evident in the way he shows affection. I picked up on this when I was in college, still angsty, but away at school and missing my parents more than I cared to admit. It became even more apparent when I moved to New York and visited every few weekends. My dad would never say he misses me, or that he loves me, but he will make damn sure the refrigerator is filled with my favorite foods when I visit. Things that my parents wouldn’t usually buy for themselves show up fresh and plentiful on the Friday nights I arrive: hummus, blueberries, pickles, and above all, clams. My dad’s baked clams, preceded by a plate of clams on the half shell with lemon and Tobasco, are home to me. I’ve never told him, and he’s never asked me, but we’ve never had to.
A few weeks ago I was planning to visit home but ended up staying in Brooklyn at the last minute. When I told my mom I wasn’t going, her response was, “Oh, your father bought four dozen clams thinking you were coming home. What are we going to do with them all?!” I didn’t think this would bother me, but it actually killed me. I pictured his excitement at the store, buying food for three instead of two, looking forward to a nice night together. Going home suddenly sounded like the best thing in the world.
I completely see where he’s coming from with this food=love approach to life. When I love someone, all I want to do is bake for them. I’ve taken to making my friends’ wedding cakes, making my husband a loaf of bread when he’s down, baking a cake when we haven’t seen each other in a few days. I guess it’s what we all do. Friends and neighbors bring trays of food when someone dies to show we care. We bring wine, cakes, almost always something edible when meeting for celebrations. It’s universal, but always so personal. It’s a philosophy I love to live by.
My dad’s baked clams have become a sort of institution in our house. They’re only made for special occasions of the everyday variety. That is, they’d never show up on a holiday table, but there’s hardly been a birthday, a trip home from college, a straight-A report card, or a random Friday night visit without them. Now that my brothers and I are out of the house and married, the briefest weekend home is an occasion for baked clams.
These may resemble those stuffed clams you find in the supermarket freezer case, but don’t be fooled. As my dad says, those are all bread.
2 dozen Cherrystone clams (or more, if you’re dedicated)
1 cup Italian-seasoned breadcrumbs (either season them yourself with parsley, garlic, salt, pepper, oregano, and Parmesan or buy them already seasoned)
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
About 2 tablespoons lemon juice
Shuck as many clams as you can manage. They’re tough, but the trick is to put them in the freezer for fifteen minutes before opening them. Once they’re sedated by the cold (I know, I’m sorry!) they won’t put up a fight. If your hand hurts, cover the shell in a dish towel while opening. Here’s a great video on how to shuck a clam if you’re new to this. Even if you’re a clam-shucking veteran, watch the video for a peek at some classic paisani in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Gotta love those guys!
Remove the clams from their shells and wash the meat. Rinse the shells, too, and watch out for little bits that may have broken off during shucking.
Put the clams back in their shells (no skimping—put a whole clam in each shell. That all-bread-and-one-snippet-of-clam BS will not be tolerated) and lay them on a cookie sheet. If you want to be really thorough, you can cut the clams into quarters before returning them to their shell so they’re easier to eat.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees when you’re ready to start assembling.
My family has obsessed over this next step for years and we each have our method. This is where you add the breadcrumbs and top them with olive oil and lemon juice. But if you do it in that order you’ll discover that the olive oil just rolls over the surface of the breadcrumbs. So you end up with a pan of olive oil and dry breadcrumbs, which takes all the joy out of eating baked clams. My mom came up with the perfect solution: First mix the breadcrumbs with two or three tablespoons of olive oil. They’ll absorb the oil and you’ll end up with a mixture resembling wet sand. Perfect.
Cover each clam with the wet sand mixture (about 1 tablespoon per clam) and squirt each one with lemon juice. Then sprinkle with paprika (don’t worry about overdoing it—even better) and bake for 15 minutes.
Top these with more lemon juice and Tobasco sauce. Follow with wine and peaches.