They aren’t vegetarian. They aren’t kosher. They aren’t fish and they aren’t fowl. They aren’t even appetizing. In fact, they don’t look edible, but those of us addicted to Mya arenaria are not put off by their unsavory appearance.
I speak of the steamer, the delicious clam indigenous to the tidal flats of Long Island, and I am here to sing its praises.
For my husband and me, summer means steamers. We love the tasty bivalves, and we eat them by the bucket. This week we begin our annual steamer binge. Although they’re usually served as an appetizer, we’ve been ordering them by the pound as a main course.
For the uninitiated, the steamer is a clam that lives its life in the mud along the ocean shoreline. It grows 7½ to 15 centimeters long. My hubby craves the large ones, but I like the small ones. The large ones look like the innards of a small animal, but that doesn’t discourage him one bit. In fact, a couple of times a summer we make a pilgrimage out to Bay Shore, to a place that serves the biggest steamers on Long Island. Affectionately known as “gaggers,” these clams are not for the novice.
Steamers are harvested, literally dug out of the muck, by licensed clammers. If the weather is rainy, the clams aren’t dug until the flat tidal waters are deemed safe from any runoff contamination.
So far, I realize, this doesn’t sound too appealing. Tainted water, animal innards — why would someone eat these creatures? To begin with, they really are safe to eat, because they’re steamed for at least five minutes until the shells open. If you’re served steamers with closed shells, do not eat them. It means they were dead when they were cooked, and that’s a no-no. They must be alive. If you buy them at a fish store, just poke your finger in the space between the shells and the clam will close. That proves it’s alive. It may freak you out, but it’s safe to cook and eat.
When I was 9, I went out to dinner with my girlfriend and her parents, and they took me to a seafood house. They ordered steamers, which I had never seen before, and if you’ve never seen them, you can’t believe that people would actually put them in their mouths. My friend was patient. She showed me how to grab the “foot” of the steamer, remove the body from the shell, dip it into broth and then butter and then pop it into your mouth.
I was hooked. The taste is pure, briny summer, with a hint of ocean. Sun and surf combine in a salty broth that simmers the clams. For June, July and August, we remember that we live on an island surrounded by seas full of flounder, sea bass, tuna, mackerel, eel, crab and clams.
We have friends who are our steamer buddies. They just eat the necks and, in that, they are a find. Because nobody eats just the necks. It’s like eating the handle. So when we dine with them, we give them our necks and they give us their bodies. It’s a beautiful thing.
A dozen steamers is a healthy serving in every way. They’re only 100 calories, with 22 grams of protein, vitamin A, C, calcium, iron and omega-3 fish oil. My favorite steamers are those I cook at home. I buy more than we think we can eat. Hey, the summer is short. Moderation is not acceptable. So I buy three or four pounds. I soak them in cold water for 20 minutes before I cook them, to get the sand out. Then I put them in a pot with water, celery, carrots, onion, peppercorns and white wine. I steam them until the shells open fully — about five minutes.
We also drink the broth, which is a bit like sipping bathwater after the bath. My husband and I came to our marriage with different steamer-eating behavior. I dipped the clams in broth and then in butter, then ate just the bodies. He dipped in broth, ate the whole clam, and then drank all the broth, careful not to stir up the sand in the bottom. I learned from him.
Forget sushi. Don’t waste your money on lobster or crabs. The sun is already sailing south. Eat clams. Then drink the broth. Serve with steamed Long Island corn and sweeten your palate with a chaser of deep-red Bing cherries.
Copyright 2018 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.