Saturday, May 29, 2010

Just Dig It

One of the pleasures of this job is the chance to meet all kinds of folks who are working in the slow food movement. John Adams is one of them. He has a family-owned shellfish business in South Puget Sound and also manages one of Taylor Shellfish's larger operations on the Dosewallips tide flats of Hood Canal.

The Dose as it's known (pronounced Doe-see) is one of those noteworthy Pacific Northwest estuaries that is ideally suited to supporting a wide array of wildlife and includes some of the most productive tidelands in the state. Snowmelt pours off the eastern slope of the Olympic Mountains to form the Dosewallips River, which in turn feeds into Hood Canal. The fresh inflow mixes with the salt across a broad expanse of glacial till to make an exceptional oyster-rearing habitat. Bald eagles patrol the shores and large numbers of harbor seals pop up to check you out in the waters off the appropriately named Seal Rock. Dungeness crabs, littleneck clams, and spot shrimp are just a few of the other toothsome varieties of shellfish that populate the estuary.

One handsome looking fella that draws foragers from far and wide is the geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck). This largest of the world's burrowing clams inhabits the lower tidal zone in good numbers—though skill and determination are still required to bring it to hand.

I spent a morning the other day with Adams and food writer Laurel Miller tracking down the wily 'duck. It's fair to say Laurel and I were both in awe of our guide's knowledge. For one thing, he can spot a geoduck show the way the rest of us see a ten dollar bill on the sidewalk. Unlike razor clam digging, when you might dig anything remotely resembling a show, deciding to dig for a geoduck is a commitment, and often you get only one shot at a clam before the tide turns. This makes the locating and verification of a show all the more crucial. John advised that it's best to see the siphon (pictured at left) or at least feel it. Lots of holes in the sand might look like geoduck shows but if the clam can't be verified, it isn't worth digging for. Horse clams (aka gapers) have similar if less oblong shows; their siphon tips, however, are usually marked by scales or barnacles, which are noticeable to the touch.

Sometimes the conditions don't cooperate and the clams, for whatever reason, withdraw their siphons. In such instances there's not much a clammer can do to make a positive ID. More likely, though, is that the would-be geoduck digger doesn't find a show because he isn't looking in the right place. Geoducks are found at the lowest end of the tidal zone. Most of the clamming literature specifies a low tide of -2 feet or more. The or more is worth noting; digging on a -3 foot tide is a much different story from digging on -2 foot tide, and each increment below -2 gives the digger a better chance, so that a -2.6 tide is quite a bit better than -2.4, for example. Also, it's important to scout the beach because geoducks are often found in concentrations in some areas and altogether absent in others. Hardcore clammers will flag geoduck shows for later.

John said that geoduck populations are generally in good shape but recreational digging tends to eliminate clams from the easiest reaches of a beach. Like mushroom hunting, a 'duck hunter is often paid off in spades for getting away from the crowds and investigating the farthest-flung corners of a tidal flat.

John also taught me a new technique for digging ducks. Rather than centering our gun—the tube used as a bulkhead to dig a hole without the sand and mud continually collapsing into the hole—directly over the clam's show, we positioned it to the side and dug adjacent to the geoduck's lair. Like a bank robber that tunnels underneath and into a vault from a safe location, this strategy allowed us to dig confidently without the fear of accidentally decapitating our quarry. Once we were deep enough, we dug laterally and found the clam's neck, then worked our way down to the shell and carefully extracted it from the burrow three feet beneath the substrate.

Or I should say Laurel extracted it. The dig was her idea and so while each of us put in some elbow grease to excavate the hole, Laurel had the honor of the final capture. I mostly snapped photos and stayed relatively dry, unlike my last geoduck dig.

Geoduck Sashimi

Geoduck Sashimi should be a revelation for most clam lovers. The rich clam flavor is pure and clean, without any distractions, and balanced by a slight sweetness. The texture is al dente in the best way. A light soy-based sauce used sparingly can accentuate the taste.

1. Clean the clam. Immerse geoduck in pot of boiling water for 8 seconds. Remove from pot, run under cold tap, and then peel off leathery siphon sheath. Cut adductor muscles (where clam attaches on inside of shell) on either side and remove body from shell. Slice off siphon at base of body and nip off the tough, dark tip of siphon, about a 1/2-inch. Discard the gut ball and gills and reserve rest of body for saute or stir-fry. The siphon is best for sashimi or ceviche.

2. Slice siphon lengthwise not quite in half and spread open, butterfly style. Clean under tap, making sure to wash off any sand or grit. The siphon is not ready to be thinly sliced for sashimi.

3. Make a sauce either for dipping or to pour over sashimi. For instance, 1 tbsp soy sauce with 1 tbsp rice vinegar and 1 tsp minced ginger. Garnish with wasabi and pickled ginger.


Rainsong said...

I have been reading you for a long time because I love your subjects. But can I just say that this is some of the most beautiful writing you have done since your surgery? Really, more than the regular pleasure to read.

Debs....western Washington

Matt said...

Great stuff. Here in Oregon we don't have many Geoduck, if any. Would Gapers work for the sashimi recipe? It sounds amazing.

Carbzilla said...

I just read about horse clams in the tidal flats in Edmonds. I assume they're not edible. True?

Good to read more about the bounty of Hood Canal as we are trying to justify purchasing a (super cheap) getaway near there. It would be a great opportunity for a glorified clam shack as we did NO razor clamming this year b/c we didn't have time for the drive from Seattle and back.

matt said...

blimey, that is work isn't it! So I saw on an episode of River Cottage a rather interesting way to catch geoduck - find the little blow hole in the sand, and pour in a little salt. Apparently it irritates the clam, and makes it surface. Seemed to work on the telly anyhow!

sally said...

The most fun I ever had at the ocean was when I was 8 or 9 digging for geoducks with my dad on the WA coast, lying flat out on the beach with my arm suctioned deep into the sand feeling around for geoduck. Just like Laurel. And then the feast later which my dad took full charge of and which you obviously do too.
Lang, your photos and meals are gorgeous. Really! Along with the spinning of great stories, it's a pleasure to visit.

Langdon Cook said...

Rainsong/Debs - You just made my day...thanks!

Matt - I've used gapers for chowder. They might be too tough for sashimi but give a try and report back your findings.

Carbzilla - Alas, I don't think there's any clamming open around Edmonds these days. If you get a little retreat on Hood Canal you'll be buying into one of the great shellfish factories of the West Coast, this despite the best efforts of residents who refuse to install updated septic systems and other abominations that are heaped upon the water quality on a daily basis.

Matt - Were those razor clams on River Cottage? Once a baby geoduck burrows down into the substrate it's pretty much stuck there three feet under for the remainder of its life. Unlike a razor, an adult geoduck's foot isn't strong enough to dig. Anyway, you're right: It's a lot of work--but worth it!

Sally - Always glad to have you stop by. Your memories of geoduck hunting with your dad are priceless. I hope my kids feel the same way when they're older. Sometimes they think their dad is a little nutty...

Unknown said...

That geoduck is incredible, I had never even heard of such a clam. Also, love what you did with it. Is a lot of your food asian influenced? Anyways, thought you should check out my web series (weekly videos) about local food, foraging, hunting etc. - last week's episode is about the wild edibles all around us here in Minnesota. Anyways, keep up the good work.


Matt said...

I and some friends did well on Razors this past holiday weekend and during cleaning, we had some soy and fake wasabi in a bowl for the digger of the smaller clams. Amazing. So tender and sweet. I'd like to try it nigiri style as well.