The Perfect Fried Clam

The sunsets are earlier. I'm overhearing conversations about school. It's time to ask myself if I have had my summer quota of fried clams.

I try not to overdo it. But this year the clams have been so good I'm considering adjusting my limit.

What makes one fried clam better than another?

For starters, the clams have to be fresh––not previously frozen. You want the thing to hold together nicely, and that just won't happen with a frozen clam.

Unless it's a clam strip. But that's a different animal altogether. Really: clam strips are made from the firm foot of a hard-shelled sea clam. (Strips were actually invented in the 1930s by an Ipswich entrepreneur who made an incredibly clever deal with HoJo's, where people far from our flats were turned on to fried clams.)

Nothing against sea clams. They're great for chowder. But when you order "whole belly" fried clams, you're getting steamers. I'm partial to them for that full-monty contrast of umami-rich body and chewy neck.

You want them lightly dredged in dry batter––a mixture of flour and spices. Wet batters are too heavy. It's important to toss the clams carefully to make sure they're not clumped up when they go into the fryer. I like to keep the oil on the hot side, so the clams will crisp without overcooking. Of course you don't want overused oil. But I've discovered that primo clams are always a couple of batches in, after the oil takes on a little fresh clam aroma.

"Hello," says my brother Alex. "There's nothing new about the way you're cooking the clams this year."

He's right, actually. What's different––and better––this year, are the clams themselves. Alex should know. He spent pretty much the whole summer purging them over at "the clam plant"––that's what he calls our new wholesale operation, the Wellfleet Shellfish Company. The steamers are bathed in tanks of filtered seawater that is constantly monitored for cleanliness while they spit out all the sand and other impurities that can mar the perfect fried-clam experience.

For the first time, we've been able to keep up with demand without having to buy steamers from Maine like we used to do. We're biased, but our local steamers (mostly from Monomoy in Chatham or Pleasant Bay in Orleans) sure seem bigger and better.

If you ever wondered why steamers are so expensive, go out digging sometime. These clams grow wild; steamers are not cultivated the way littlenecks are. They are dug with hand-held rakes, dragged through heavy sand at low tide. And the season, defined not by nature but by summer demand, is short.

Soon the diggers will take on other work for the winter. The "clam plant" will be all about oysters. And it will be a long wait for that next order of fried clams.

Posted in  Fishermen & Farmers  How To

Tagged  clam strip  fried clam  steamers

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Connie says:

Aug 29, 2012 at 10:15 AM

I loved this article, very well-put. I grew up digging clams on the left coast, on an island actually, in the Puget Sound of Washington State. Visiting the Cape several years ago, I found the serenity, the ebb & flow of the tides and life in the sea on the East Coast, familiar yet foriegn. Your brief article, so full of good information and vivid descriptors, brings a smile. I can’t wait to visit the Cape again one day, and soak up all the unique, sensory goodness that it’s local folk enjoy (smell the air, feel the breeze, taste the clams, see the beauty, hear the gulls).

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