Dine: Why can't the clam get any respect here?
A bowl of New England Clam Chowder from Penn Avenue Seafood Co.
Henry Dewey, owner of Penn Avenue Fish Co., with a bowl of its New England Clam Chowder.
Little neck clams, left, and middle neck clams from Virginia at the Penn Avenue Seafood Co.
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The clam is the blue-collar shellfish.
It plays third or fourth string to the aphrodisiac oyster, the increasingly expensive scallop, the coveted lobster and the ubiquitous mussel.
Yet clams lend flavor that makes any dish infinitely more delicious.
Clams seep salinity onto Parmesan and crust of a New Haven-style crispy clam pie. They add brine to linguine vongole, paired with silky noodles and decadent cream.
Clams are even resonant on their own, with assistance from shallots, garlic, olive oil and a reduction of flinty, crisp Chablis.
Not terribly popular in Pittsburgh, clams as a star ingredient hold their own elsewhere -- and for good reason.
"Here in Pittsburgh, clams are a Catch-22," said Henry Dewey, owner of Penn Avenue Fish Co.
"When you have them, no one buys them. And it's a very perishable product. Then I'll decide not to order them and five people come in and want them."
Mr. Dewey says he expects an uptick in clam sales during the holidays, but not by much. "The sales of clams are about the same as when I moved to Pittsburgh 20 years ago," he said.
Mr. Dewey hasn't heard of clams being used for much beyond pasta and chowder. "People here don't branch out with clams."
On the coasts, however, the message of sustainability has boosted the clam's popularity.
"The comeback of clams was before oysters in Virginia," said Travis Croxton, co-founder of Rappahannock River Oysters. The farmer, whose production is dominated by oysters, has segued into clams to sell raw at his restaurants in Topping, Va., and Washington, D.C.
Clams, it turns out, are easy to farm, require very little maintenance and help filter excess nitrogen from water.
Farmed clams are also heartier and have a longer shelf life than wild clams, which, according to Mr. Dewey "open up nearly the moment I get them in."
With meat that's pink, white, peach or tan, a healthy clam tastes of sweetness and umami with a metallic finish.
Ten to 12 clams are around 60 calories and provide 1.5 percent of a day's allowance for fat and 16 percent of a day's cholesterol, according to the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association. A dozen supplies a day's worth of vitamin B12.
Although many associate clams with rubbery quahogs chopped and dropped in chowders, farmers have been harvesting little necks small enough to make 7 to 10 per pound; middle necks at 6 to 10 per pound and top-neck clams at 4 clams per pound for a variety of uses.
Delicate little ones cook faster and serve as a star of a dish, needing only a hint of heat to open.
Ridged Manila clams, oblong razor clams and freakish looking geoducks make appearances in Asian cuisine, though along with ingredients such as lemongrass and galangal (a type of ginger), they, too, are edging into a broader culinary lexicon.
In addition to their lack of popularity in the middle states, a price drop showed strain in the market.
Farming that began in the 1980s became so successful that the market flooded. This was compounded by their import from Vietnam, causing many U.S. farmers to go out of business.
And while their reputation is on the rise, it's nowhere near the star that mussels are becoming. This is curious, considering clams can be harvested up and down both coasts, while mussels are usually harvested from colder waters farther north.
Nevertheless, people such as Dave Belanger, a South Carolina clam farmer known as "Clammer Dave," have been resurrecting the reputation of clams.
After planting bivalves around Charleston Harbor more than 12 years ago, he started a modest shellfish community-support-agriculture group, or CSA, that grew to become quite popular among locals. Eventually, restaurateurs such as New York's Mario Batali and Andrew Carmellini clamored for Mr. Belanger's clams.
Mr. Belanger harvests clams then places them in floating racks in "highly oxygenated" water, he said. The process he calls purging removes grit and suspended particles from clams. After three or four days, he pulls them from the water for distribution. He said this process is part of what makes his clams so superior.
In Pittsburgh, chefs such as Stephen Felder at Stagioni, an Italian restaurant that moved from Bloomfield to the South Side earlier this year, often feature clams on the menu.
"They're very versatile to work with," said Mr. Felder. "In the summer, it's nice to pair them with something sweet, like corn. This time of year, I serve it with broth. It smells great in the dining room and really gets the appetite going."
Mr. Felder referred to clams on the menu as an aromatic first course with garlic, white wine, olive oil, a little red pepper then finished with basil. Among main dishes, clams flank walleye along with cardoons and cippolini onions.
Customers can often find clams among dishes at Penn Avenue Fish Co. in the Strip and Downtown. In colder months, its shellfish broth with clams paired with cream is laden with diced potatoes. A vegetable mirepoix offers sweetness while thyme lends fragrance.
Stocked with chopped clams and laced with smoky bacon, a bowl of New England clam chowder here is among the most pleasing soups of the season. (With a dash of sherry it is more of a delight.)
By noon at lunch during a weekday, it had sold out in the Downtown location.
But don't wait for clams to show up on a menu. Buy a bag from a fishmonger along with a couple of links of sweet sausage or chorizo.
In a seasoned cast-iron skillet, soften a diced onion and a clove of garlic. Brown sausage. Add 3/4 cup of your favorite white wine or stock and bring to a boil. Add clams. Cover the skillet until they open. Then garnish with flat leaf parsley.
Don't bother moving your creation to a plate. Pair bites of savory pork with briny clams. Use crusty bread to savor the reduction in the bottom of the pan.
These flavors will convince even a skeptic the little clam is far from lowly.
First Published November 18, 2012 12:00 am