Clam boil

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(Photo: Howard L. Puckett)(Source: Coastal Living)
(Photo: Howard L. Puckett)
(Source: Coastal Living)

A clam boil is a New England seafood specialty. In particular my family in the southern Massachusetts / Rhode Island area would have clam boils often, nearly every summer. This area, from New Bedford to Fall River to Rhode Island, is known for its large Portuguese population. (43.9% of Fall River residents claim Portuguese heritage — the highest percentage in America — while New Bedford has 38.6% (2000 Census figures)). This would probably explain why nearly all (authentic!) clam boil recipes mention Portuguese sausage — linguiça and/or chouriço.

Besides clams and sausage, other ingredients include potatoes, onions, hot dogs, and optionally (depending on the recipe) lobster, corn, garlic cloves, Italian sausage, and beer.


The Clams

Quahogs

You can find out all you want to know about quahogs, or the hard clam, at WikiPedia's Quahog page. Quahogs are also known as, depending on the size, littlenecks (smallest), cherrystones (medium), and quahogs or chowder clams (largest). For clam boils, the smaller littlenecks are typically used. There are also clams known as Pacific Littlenecks, however these are in fact west coast or Japanese variety, and not known as quahogs.

Interesting fact: "Wampum" was made by the Narragansett Indians out of quahog shells. The name "quahog" derives from the word "poquauhock".

Steamers

In addition to the quahogs (hard clams), are the soft-shelled clams, called "steamers". These are also often used in clam boils.

Cleaning

Before cooking, the sand and dirt needs to be extracted from the clams. This is generally done by soaking for at least a day in salt water, optionally adding cornmeal or corn starch to the water.

Cooking

When steamed, the clams are cooked intact without shucking. For smaller littlenecks and steamers, only a few minutes of cooking is required after the shells have opened.

In general, a clam boil simply requires separating the ingredients according to cooking time, collecting each in cheesecloth bags for convenience. Those ingredients requiring longer cooking times are added first, adding each in turn until the clams are added last (requiring the least time).

Eating

Clams whose shells have not opened should not be eaten, as they may have died and spoiled before cooking. Steaming the clams in the pot with the other ingredients gives the clam boil its distinctive taste. One removes the clam from the shell, peels off the "skin" from the muscle, first dips the clam in a cup of broth (from the pot) to remove any remaining sand, then in a cup of drawn melted butter for flavor.

The Recipe

(numbers in parentheses = 10 person amount)

Littleneck or steamer clams — 1 lb (1 qt) per person (10 qt)
Chouriço or linguiça — 2–3 3" pieces per person (8–10 sausages)
Plain link sausages — 2–3 per person (25 links)
Hot dogs — 2–3 per person (25 hot dogs)
Regular yellow onions — 1–2 apple-sized per person (15 onions)
Potatoes — 1–2 per person (15 potatoes)
(Optional) Sweet potatoes — 1 per person
Portuguese bread or similar on the side

If you can get the clams pre-cleaned that's good. If not, start early in the day and put them in the sink or some large container, and dump a box of salt on them and let them set for awhile. Then rinse and do it again, about 3 times. You may want to clean their shells with a vegetable brush before cleaning with salt. Then keep them on ice until ready to steam.

One large steamer pot should hold everything for 10 persons. Use additional pots for more people.

Wrap each separate ingredient in their own cheese cloths. Put the potatoes on the bottom, then onions, (also sweet potatoes if you want), then the meat. Cover with water. Throw some paprika on top of it all – maybe a couple of teaspoons worth. Bring to a boil and cook at a slow boil for a couple of hours, or until a big onion placed at the top of the boil is nice and soft and cooked through.

Once you are satisfied that the potatoes and everything else are done, you can place the clams on top "above" the water level — cover and let them steam for about 20–25 minutes.

Serve with bowls of broth from the pot (for cleaning) and melted butter (for taste).

Add napkins as required.

The Humor

Somehow it doesn't seem appropriate to have an article describing clam boils, Quahogs, and southern New England without at least a nod to Family Guy, the Fox television cartoon. This show takes place in Quahog, Rhode Island, a fictitious town (see the Quahog 5 News site). Apparently, "quahog" doubles as a slang term for vagina.

The Links

More Info

Wikipedia: New England Clam Boil

Recipes

Recipe Archives Clam Boil
Clam Boil Article


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