Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Horsing Around: Clam and Corn Chowder

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 onion
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.


Martha Silano said...

Ummy! That chowder does look delectable.

All the clam shack talk has me pining for a trip to Long Beach Island, and some Jersey-style hospitality.

What is UP with Puget Sound that it doesn't grok the need for an unpretentious shack? Boggles the mind ...

Kimberley said...

I really hope that someone proves you wrong about the lack of clam shacks on the West Coast. Perhaps opening a clam shack to end all clam shacks should be your next undertaking? I bet that many a displaced East Coaster would thank you. :)

Anonymous said...

If you want a straight replay of the Clam Shack as described, you probably won't find it ( or them).

Long gone, you used to be able to find small, informal, SEASONAL places about where you would expect:
Astoria, Ilwaco, Long Beach,South Bend, Grayland, Westport, Shelton, Olympia, LaConner, Anacortes, along Chuckanut Drive, and Coupeville.

Still, in each of these locations, you still can find at least one place that operates year round, and serves some damn good seafood.

Say, for example, Toby's Tavern in Coupeville. On Chuckanut, stop at Taylors. Buy and shuck your own. Or grill 'em. They provide the tables. They also sell clams, crabs, mussels.

Ross Kane
Warm Beach (Port Susan)

John Adams said...

Hi Lang, I agree with everything you said regarding a lack of clam shacks (with oysters too!). Didn't Ivar's start out in that direction?
A question, what parts of the clam did you use and what parts did you target for exclusion, if any?

Langdon Cook said...

Martha - I'll save some for you!

Kimberley - I don't think I have what it takes to run a restaurant. Huge props for those who do.

Ross - I think I've been to Toby's and had the mussels. Nice place, but if I'm thinking of the right place it's not exactly a clam shack (as you say), more of a casual dining spot with some shellfish on the menu... Years ago we sampled the Chuckanut Drive oyster houses with limited success. Haven't been to Taylor's, though I'm a fan of their shellfish. There used to be a half-decent fish 'n' chip shop in Ocean Shores but I think it closed. Some of those other locales have succumbed to the usual pressures of Walmart USA. The franchising of America is a sad spectacle.

John - I processed the horse clams like geoducks: boiled in water for 10 seconds, removed the shell, cut out the stomach and gills, butterflied the siphon (removing the siphon sheath was the hardest part), and salvaged what body meat I could. Definitely less meat on a horse than a 'duck.

Anonymous said...

Okay. Try Pacific Oyster in Bay City, Oregon. 5150 Oyster Drive
Bay City, OR 97053
(503) 377-2323. Call before you make the trip.Crab as good as you get at my house.

On Chuckanut, the Oyster Bar is the best of the lot. At lunch. At dinner, it is much more upscale. The Web Locker in B'ham is also pretty good for fried fish or oysters. Ditto for the Conway Tavern. Rexville Grocery has its fans, esp. for Sunday breakfast.

Ross Kane
Warm Beach (Port Susan)

AndrewM said...

There isn't as much meat on a horse as a 'duck and they don't taste as sweet, but they're *far* more prolific, only buried half as deep. And you can screen for the big ones by the hole and/or siphon show. And you can harvest 7. And they occur higher on the beach...

jill said...

Sorry but just a different culture out here, so don't expect it to mimic the East Coast food scene. Growing up here for me it was about salmon bakes after my dad went deep-sea fishing, fresh boiled crab, and kippered salmon. Also the cold poached whole salmon at the Top of the Ocean Sunday brunch, oh my! You don't taste salmon like that much anymore with the decline of our local salmon fisheries. Try the alder-plank roasted salmon at the semi-annual Brown's Point Salmon Bake for an authentic Northwest local food experience. Not happening this year though.

BTW, Ivar (properly pronounced EEE-var) originally started out with an aquarium rather than the seafood biz. Just very good at self promotion. He was my grandmother's first cousin and sang at my parent's wedding...

Emily said...

Being a New Englander myself (originally from Vermont) I can really appreciate good clam chowder now that I am also living on the west coast in Vancouver. You would think it would be easier to find since we are so close to the water! Thanks for the recipe I think I will definitely try it soon.

Neil Butterfield said...

Clam chowder is awesome. Thanks for sharing this post as it has reminded me to get my wife to make some for us.

Langdon Cook said...

Ross - Sounds like I should come to your house...

AndrewM - Good points, all.

Jill - Maybe so. I love a good salmon bake as much as the next PNWer. But with our wealth of shellfish it seems like we should be able to enjoy those too in a down home way.

Emily - It's a simple chowder. Hope you like it.

Neil - Maybe it's time to make some for the wife!

Carter said...

Real New Englanders don't use bacon, they use salt pork. And they don't thicken with flour either. If you must thicken rather that reduce, use instant mashed potato.

Carter said...

Real New Englanders use salt pork, not bacon. They reduce not thicken with flour. If you must thicken use instant mashed potato.

Langdon Cook said...

Carter - We wouldn't want to offend the sensibilities of those "real New Englanders" now, would we...

Ryan said...

Former New Englander myself, currently living in Virginia Beach. I have to agree with you, with all the great seafood around here, no good clam shacks. The Hatteras clam chowder isn't even a creamy soup.
I always make sure I get a lobster roll and some fried clams when I go visit my parents.