Digging Clams: From Sandy Spade to Chowder Bowl
I am officially obsessed with foraging for food. And there are boundless opportunities to do it here. So when invited to try my hand at digging for clams on the nearby Oregon coast, of course I leapt at the opportunity. We went out at low tide Wednesday morning on the Siletz Bay just down the road from Mo’s Restaurant (famous for their chowder). Bill Lackner, who founded a local Clam-Diggers Association, was our generous guide. He offers free clinics up and down the coast to promote recreational clamming and ensure that the shellfish are harvested sustainably so all can enjoy them. He quickly demonstrated the technique and then we were off!
Let’s just say clam-digging is immensely easier than foraging for wild mushrooms. If you don’t mind coating yourself with cold, wet sand. You just use a spade or a clam gun to dig about a foot down and then feel your hand all around the perimeter of the whole. Almost every time I found a clam. Instant gratification. Of course, with the cold water, our fingers got numb, making it difficult to feel out the shells as the digging progressed. I also kept cracking the shells with the shovel or gun. It takes finesse not to do so.
Our Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shellfish license entitled us to each collect 36 clams per day. Let’s just say you shouldn’t have a problem meeting that target.
We found mostly hearty purple varnish clams (native to Japan, planted on the Oregon coast in the 1990s) and a few large Eastern softshell, I believe the same species as our beloved, chewy necked steamer clams in Maine. And when life gives you clams, you make chowder. Spicy tomato Manhattan-style is my chowder of choice, which I fondly remember my Bronx-born Nonny would make. The applewood-smoked bacon and the Spanish chorizo I added to the broth really gave this chowder bite. I first made this recipe (see more details below), from Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food, for a review I penned for The Sun. I also threw in caraway seeds to make it like they did on Coney Island.
Manhattan Clam Chowder
- Yield: Serves about 8
No one really knows who made the first clam chowder with tomatoes, the chowder known as Manhattan. New Englanders, mainly those from Massachusetts and Maine, whose chowder is enriched with cream (or evaporated milk in more modern recipes), laugh at the folly of a tomato-flavored chowder. Neighboring Connecticut and Rhode Island, however, states with New England coast credentials as valid as Cape Cod, make chowder without either cream or tomatoes. The traditional Rhode Island chowder is a gray clam broth with nothing more than salt pork, potato, and, interestingly, thyme as the seasoning, the same as New York City’s. Indeed, some Rhode Island chowderheads speculate that Manhattan chowder is really a variant of Rhode Island chowder, the chopped tomatoes a contribution of Rhode Island’s large Italian-American community, most of whom hail from the tomato-rich Italian south. But, there are other theories, too.
Whatever the origin, clam chowder made with tomatoes and thyme was popular in the Coney Island, Brighton Beach, and Manhattan Beach hotel restaurants of the 1880s to the turn of the century. When Coney Island became the beach resort of the people streaming off the new subway lines in 1921, Manhattan Clam Chowder really took off. (I have also read a few references to caraway being the seasoning in Coney Island Chowder.)
My grandfather, Bernard (Barney) Schwartz was a professional Manhattan Clam Chowder chef. During the Depression, after he had lost his restaurant business, he sold chowder, along with some other bar foods of the day, off a pushcart to bars and grills. I watched him make chowder many times, along with his other specialties—pickles, coleslaw, and potato salad. He always insisted on using really big chowder clams, never Littlenecks or Cherrystones, which he put through the meat grinder. I have tried making chowder with the smaller clams, but Barney was right. The result tastes more like vegetable soup than clam chowder. You need the strong flavor of big clams to make this work.
- 2 dozen large chowder clams, well-washed
- 4 ounces bacon or salt pork, cut into ½-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 medium onions, cut into ¼-inch dice
- 1 medium carrot, cut into ¼-inch dice
- 1 large rib celery, cut into ¼-inch dice
- 1 large green pepper, cut into ¼-inch dice
- 1½ pounds potatoes, cut into ½-inch cubes (about 3 cups)
- 1 (28-ounce) can peeled plum tomatoes, with their juice, the tomatoes coarsely chopped
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 large bay leaf
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Salt to taste
In a 5-quart pot, combine the clams and 6 cups of cold water. Cover and place over high heat. When the water begins to boil, uncover the pot and boil the clams until they open, 2 to 3 minutes.
Remove the clams from their shells. Set aside in a large bowl.
Strain the broth through a sieve lined with a few layers of cheesecloth or a tightly woven cloth napkin. Leave behind any sand that may have settled in the pot. You should have slightly less than 8 cups of liquid. Set aside.
Rinse out the 5-quart pot and dry it.
Put the bacon or salt pork in the pot and cook over medium-low heat until some of the fat has rendered and the meat has lost its raw color.
Add the diced onion, carrot, celery, and green pepper. Toss well, then cook over medium heat until the vegetables are well wilted, 10 to 12 minutes.
Add the potatoes and the reserved and strained clam broth. Bring to a boil, then adjust heat so broth just simmers. Cook until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.
Add the chopped tomatoes, the thyme, and the bay leaf. Continue to simmer another 30 minutes or so, until the vegetables are very tender.
Meanwhile, push the clams through the medium blade of a meat grinder, or finely chop them in a food processor.
When the chowder has cooked for half an hour, add the clams, then shut off the heat.
Add freshly ground pepper to taste. Correct the salt—the chowder may not need any because clams are salty, and the tomatoes have salt, but usually it does.
The chowder is much better when it is allowed to stand for several hours, or refrigerated overnight, then gently reheated just to the simmering point.