Cook's Adventures: The Thrill of Hunting for Manila Clams
You’re in a trendy Seattle restaurant—or even a sleepy seaside café out in the boondocks, for that matter—and a steaming bowl of Manila clams arrives at your table. The clamshells are open, their succulent meat swimming in a broth of wine, garlic, parsley and perhaps some fennel. It’s the sort of simple yet amazingly fresh fare that the south of France is known for.
On second thought, you decide, a dish this good couldn’t really be simple. But it is—and anyone can make it. On a camp stove. At the beach.
This is what I tell the students in my shellfish foraging classes (before I tell them that I won’t be lifting a finger; the digging and cooking of clams will all be up to them). And by the end, when the last clam or oyster has been slurped from its shell, they’re believers.
Here’s what you do. Go to the beach. Our Puget Sound tidelands are loaded with these small, hard-shelled bivalves, and they happen to live right near the surface, just a few inches beneath the substrate, where a handheld garden cultivator can unearth them at low tide. Look for beaches with a mix of mud and gravel, not hard to find around here. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website has a helpful interactive map of shellfish beaches (wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/shellfish/beaches), with harvest profiles and closure alerts.
Some of our clamming beaches are open year-round, but it’s during the colder months when clams are at their best. The limit is 40 Manilas per person per day. By law, each digger must have his or her own container. At around $11 for residents, a one-day shellfish license is cheaper than that single bowl of restaurant clams, while an annual license is a great deal at $16, or you can purchase a combination fishing and shellfish license for $54; all are available online at fishhunt.dfw.wa.gov. (Left: Langdon with fresh Manila clams.)
The miracle of the Manila clam is that it makes its own sauce. The liquid inside the shell is called the liquor. It’s a salty-sweet ambrosia that only nature could invent. When you steam open a Manila clam, the liquor mixes and marries with whatever other ingredients you’ve added to the pot. For Chinese black bean clams, these would be fermented black beans, rice wine and slivers of red pepper; for Thai red curry clams, they’d be lemongrass, red curry paste and coconut milk; for a classic Italian presentation, ingredients might include tomatoes and sausage; for French clams, herbs, cream and white wine. These are all one-pot meals easily prepared on a camp stove. Unlike butter clams, Manilas are rarely gritty, so you can eat them right out of the Sound without elaborate purging rituals.
There’s nothing like a meal of freshly dug Manila clams steamed in their own juices on your favorite beach. Clamming is also an excellent way to introduce kids to the satisfaction of finding food in the wild. And parents will want to remember to bring an adult beverage—perhaps a Provençal rosé?—to complement the simple yet delicious meal that awaits.
Find Langdon’s linguine recipe here and more about foraging at fat-of-the-land.blogspot.com