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Hard or soft, clams are an American tradition
By Sam Gugino
In Fading Feast, food critic Raymond Sokolov argues that "the New England clambake has as much claim to the title of our national feast as Thanksgiving." Not surprising, because clams were much more in evidence at that first Thanksgiving than were turkeys. "North America is the best place in the world for clams," writes Alan Davidson in Seafood: A Connoisseur's Guide and Cookbook. But don't wait for a clambake to enjoy America's favorite bivalve.
Clams fall into two categories: hard-shell and soft-shell. The gray, hard-shell clams found in bays, tidal flats and on beaches of the East Coast are all members of the same species. They are distinguished only by size and are the most widely available fresh clams. (Ocean clams are used in canned and frozen products.) Button clams are the smallest of the hard-shell variety. They are just right for linguine with clam sauce, though the more accessible littlenecks are typically used. The larger littlenecks, about 14 per pound, are also great steamed or in a seafood stew.
Topnecks, which come 10 to 12 per pound, have great versatility. Steam them, turn them into clams casino (baked with breadcrumbs and bacon), serve them raw on the half shell, or pair them with other seafood. Cherrystones, at 8 to 10 per pound, are in a kind of "clam no-man's-land" as far as Bob Groben is concerned. "They're too big to put on the half shell and too small to chop up for chowder," says Groben, who owns Groben's Seafood, a retail store in Philadelphia. Nonetheless, many think cherrystones are just fine on the half shell, grilled, baked, or used in clams casino.
Hefty quahogs are the offensive linemen of the clam world at about 5 per pound. They are also as tough as leather helmets, so they have to be chopped for dishes like chowder. Most people steam quahogs first, but Groben shucks them raw, then grinds them in a food processor. Like most other Rhode Islanders, Ralph Conte, owner of Raphael Bar-Risto in Providence, R.I., makes his chowder with a clear broth--no cream (New England) or tomato (Manhattan).
Most unoaked dry white wines are good choices with clams. I particularly like Sancerre or a Mâcon with clams on the half shell. With spicier clam dishes try Vouvray. For richer dishes, Pouilly-Fumé. Although it might seem sacrilegious to eat clam chowder with anything but beer, a crisp Pinot Grigio went well with Conte's Rhode Island version. Fino Sherry is a great choice for steamed clams or baked clams, especially with nuts. When choosing reds, stick with fruity wines with low tannin, such as the young Tempranillo I had with my pork-and-clam stew. If you decide to serve clams for Thanksgiving, you're on your own.
-- Sam Gugino, Wine Spectators Tastes columnist, is the author of Cooking to Beat the Clock.
For the complete article, please see the August 31, 2000 issue of Wine Spectator magazine, p.30.
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