JP’s Food Adventures: Clams in Garlic and Wine, An Ideal Warm Weather Dish

Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

Plenty of us go out for shellfish, whether it’s moules- frites at a French joint, Chinese clams in black bean sauce or oysters on the half shell offered at several neighborhood happy hours. But many do not cook shellfish at home. This strikes me as weird, since we live on the coast – shellfish are relatively cheap and plentiful. In the case of clams and mussels, they’re really inexpensive and easy to cook. By most metrics they’re considered “healthy” foods as well, being big on nutrients and low in fat.

I think a big reason most folks do not cook shellfish at home is because we shop for food at the supermarket. A supermarket favors foods with long shelf lives. Most of the food for sale in a supermarket is capable of sitting for weeks, months, even years without spoiling. This makes it easier for managers to pay attention to the smaller percentage of foods with shorter shelf lives, such as meat, fresh vegetables and dairy. There are greater losses, and thus less profit in selling these things, so a smart manager must choose carefully among them. Fresh fish, particularly shellfish, doesn’t stand much of a chance in this environment, as it’s extremely perishable. It’s simply not worth the risk, and thus uncommon in most supermarkets.

But living on the Lower East Side we’re not at the mercy of the supermarket when it comes to seafood. There are fishmongers all over the place.  Those who prefer an upscale supermarket experience can go to Whole Foods. The Essex Street Market boasts two very worthy fishmongers (Rainbo Fish and New Star). I shop at both. Fishmongers dot the streets of Chinatown, ranging from excellent to dicey. (My favorite is Ocean Star, on the north corner of Grand and Chrystie. That’s usually where I get my shellfish, and I’ve never had a problem there – staff is friendly, turnover is high and prices are good). Those of us who want to cook clams or mussels at home have plenty of choices for sourcing them. Just be sure to buy them no more than an hour or two before cooking.

The cooking is easy: first scrub the shellfish, discarding any that have opened. Then make a cooking liquid in the bottom of a pot, toss in the clams or mussels and cover. About ten minutes later, when they have opened, serve in a bowl with the cooking liquid, some bread for sopping and a salad. (Discard any that fail to open after ten minutes). You won’t even need to add salt, as the shellfish are salty enough on their own.

I offered this type of recipe for mussels in this column last October. Here’s one for clams:

Clams in Garlic and Wine

18 Little or Top Neck clams, scrubbed
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2Tbs olive oil
glass dry white wine
handful of Italian parsley, chopped

Fry garlic in oil in bottom of pot for a minute or two. (Don’t let it brown). Add remaining ingredients, cover and simmer for about ten minutes until clams have opened. Serve in bowl with cooking liquid spooned over top of clams. Serves two.

If this clam recipe looks quite a bit like a sauce for pasta, that’s because it is. Substituting a small hunk of bread for a large plate of pasta makes for a lighter meal, with just about the same level of satisfaction. In the hot weather quick, light meals like these make sense. Just remember to be vigilant about getting the shells into the garbage and out of your apartment after you eat. Enjoy!

JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well,  consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.

Dry, high acid wines tend not to drink so well by the glass, but are perfect at the table. My summer cooking veers toward Mediterranean seafood dishes, and a wine displaying “mouth watering” acidity goes well with such meals. A lovely example at Seward Park Liquors is Domaine Felines Jourdan, Picpoul de Pinet, 2011 ($15). The Picpoul grape was once hugely popular in France, until phylloxera decimated the vines, nearly wiping out this ancient variety. Some of the last stands of it are in the sandy, coastal soils of the Languedoc, where this wine is made. On the nose it’s more floral than fruity, and in the mouth there’s a slight minerality. But the high, yet balanced acidity coupled with its dryness are what make this wine special at the table.