Calamari may steal the show as Rhode Island’s official “state appetizer,” but fried squid isn’t the only sea creature adored by local gourmands. The equally iconic “state shell” comes from a type of clam called a northern quahog, otherwise known as a hard clam, round clam, or chowder clam (so-called because they’re often used in clam chowders).
Wild-caught Rhode Island quahogs, along with northern razor clams harvested from the Quinault Indian Reservation in British Columbia, Canada, are some of the most sustainable clams you’ll find in North America. Plucked from the sea with rakes, hoes, and shovels, Rhode Island’s clams are harvested in accordance with quotas and science-based fishery management. This is especially important because quahogs are slow-growing and take up to 20 years to reach a commercially harvestable size.
If you can’t find Rhode Island quahogs or Quinault northern razor clams at your local supermarket, any other variety will do. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide lists all clams as either a “best choice” or “good alternative,” and the latter list includes quahogs harvested in Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada (where Oceana successfully advocated for the establishment of a marine protected area).
As Mark Bittman writes in the 20th anniversary edition of his book How to Cook Everything, different terms denote the varying textures and sizes of these meaty mollusks: “Clams range from little (littlenecks and Manilas) to sea clams that weigh hundreds of pounds; they may be hard (littlenecks, cherrystones, or the huge quahogs) or soft (steamers, razor clams, and other clams with fragile shells). The biggest and toughest are chopped into bits to be made into chowder. The choicest – essentially the smallest – are sold live and are great raw or briefly cooked.”
Whichever clam you choose, Bittman recommends pairing them with cold soba noodles and dipping sauce for a full meal; shucking fresh ones and eating them raw with lemon; or serving up a simple clam appetizer, like the recipe below.
Baked Clams with Wasabi Bread Crumbs
From How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
Serves: 4 main-dish or 8 appetizer servings
Time: About 1 hour
24 clams, well scrubbed
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 cups panko
2 teaspoons wasabi powder, or to taste
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
¼ cup soy sauce, or to taste
Salt and pepper
Lemon wedges for serving
1. Heat the oven to 450°F. Shuck the clams, reserving half the shells and as much of the liquor as possible. If you’re not confident about shucking, steam the clams lightly, removing them the second their shells begin to open. You can also microwave them, removing them the second they begin opening. Then shuck the clams, still preserving as much oftheir liquor as possible. Chop the clams; I suggest by hand, but you can use a mini food processor if you are careful not to overprocess.
2. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the panko and cook, stirring, just until the crumbs begin to brown a bit. Add the wasabi and cook, stirring, until fragrant, just a minute or 2. Remove from the heat and stir in the chives. Add the reserved clam liquor and the soy sauce, a little at a time, to moisten the mixture. Fold in the clam meat. Taste and add more wasabi, soy, or a sprinkle of salt and pepper as needed.
3. Fill the reserved shells with this stuffing. Put them on a baking sheet or roasting pan, and bake until the stuffing is bubbling and lightly browned but not dry, about 10 minutes. Serve hot or warm, with lemon wedges.
This column appears in the current issue of Oceana Magazine. Read it online here.