Tag Archive | "Clams"

Love is a Refrigerator Filled with Clams

Love is a Refrigerator Filled with Clams


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.

Baked Clams
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.

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On Family Tables, Upstairs (and Downstairs) Neighbors, and Insatiable Clam Obsessions (Spaghetti with Clams)

On Family Tables, Upstairs (and Downstairs) Neighbors, and Insatiable Clam Obsessions (Spaghetti with Clams)


I’ve talked about clams before. I like them. A lot. Okay, more than a lot. It’s a problem. Sometimes, they’re all I can think about. When I get it in my mind that I want them, nothing else will suffice. It’s like a nervous tick. I’m sure it has to do with my childhood. I’ve mentioned how clams are always on my family’s table for mini celebrations—so much so that we can hardly celebrate anything without them. They’re more essential than a birthday cake. And I don’t like eating them with anyone other than my family. It’s just not the same without my dad cutting lemon wedges at the kitchen counter, digging the Tobasco bottle from that dark corner of the fridge before he sits down. A very special meal will include the triple header: raw clams for an appetizer, then pasta with clams, followed by baked clams.

My husband Joe has experienced the Gagliano clam extravaganza at my parents’ house, but I decided recently that I have to master this fine art now, before we have a family of our own to continue the madness with. I was also feeling a little homesick, so I broke my own rule and made spaghetti with clams without my parents. It was amazing, but I really did miss the big family table, my mom scrunching her nose at the raw clams, and the inevitable stories that emerge over dinner. It often goes back to Brooklyn, sharing memories of clam nights with the neighbors who lived above and below us. Mr. Joe and his wife Marie lived upstairs. Mr. Joe loved clams–almost as much as me. He would call us up for clam dinners at least once a month. And what could be better? Tony and Helen, who lived downstairs, and also shared the love.

They were all elderly and treated my parents like their own kids. My brothers and I were their honorary grandkids, even though our grandparents lived right across the street. We didn’t mind. We had so much in common—our love for clams most of all. We’d all gather in our cramped kitchens, noses running from too much Tobasco, pasta water boiling over, shouting at one another, men arguing over shucking methods, like one big dysfunctional neighborly family.

Tony, Helen, Mr. Joe, Marie, this one’s for you, wherever you are.

Spaghetti with Clams
1 dozen fresh cherrystone clams
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
½ medium white onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, diced
Approximately 10 sprigs of fresh parsley, chopped
1 pound spaghetti
Romano cheese, grated
freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Shuck the clams, taking special care to reserve the juice. This is the trickiest part. I use a neurotic two-bowl method created by my mom. Keep one large bowl, where all the juice will eventually end up. But open each clam over a smaller, separate bowl. Catch the juice in the small bowl and give it a good sniff. If it doesn’t smell funky, pour it into the large bowl. That way, if you happen upon a bad clam you won’t ruin the entire batch.

Set the actual clams in a separate dish for later. If you need a quick lesson in clam-shucking, I refer you once again to our good friends in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.

Once you have a good bowl of juice, filter out the sand. The fine pores in a plain cotton handkerchief are perfect for this. Line a new bowl with a (clean!) handkerchief large enough to cover the entire bowl, with room to fold over the rim. With the handkerchief securely in place, pour the clam juice into the bowl, making sure the cloth doesn’t fall in.



Gather the handkerchief’s four corners and lift, creating a sack. The juice will drip slowly through the fabric, leaving the sand behind. Set aside.



You can adjust your clammy levels depending on the severity of your clam obsession. I, for one, would name my firtborn Littleneck if it were socially acceptable. But seeing as how it’s not, I choose, instead, to make a super clammy pasta. If you’re like me, cut the dozen clams you’d set aside into bite-size pieces. If you want a slightly less clammy experience, use half the clams (or however many you want, really). You can bake the rest, or call me and I’ll come pick them up.

In a large saucepan, sauté the onions and garlic in the olive oil. Add ¾ of the parsley and sauté until it begins to soften, then add the clam juice. Cover the pot and let it simmer on low heat for about 15 minutes. In the meantime, get your pasta water boiling and make the spaghetti. I’ll spare you the step-by-step on how to boil pasta, but if you need help, visit this lovely blog.

Set the cooked spaghetti aside and tend to your sauce again. Its base is essentially ocean water, so it’s going to be really salty. Taste it and add water as needed. Your pasta water is perfect for this if you haven’t already dumped it. Once you get the liquid to your liking, add the chopped clams. They only need about a minute to cook, so add them at this very last stage. Overcooked clams will get rubbery.

Pour the clam sauce over the cooked pasta, mix, and serve. Top each serving with a dash of the remaining parsley, Romano cheese, and pepper. Call and invite me over for dinner.

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