Steamer clams, like the ones pictured above, are a nostalgic food for me and I typically associate them with summer. You see, summer was the time that my family often spent time camping on the west side of Puget Sound on a body of water called Hood Canal. Gathering and eating various forms of seafood was always a part of the experience and I spent many happy hours sifting through the beach gravels in search of various types of clams. We would then take them back to camp, clean them up, and have them steamed with garlic butter, or toss them in the cioppino pot simmering on the fire.
Although a lot can be said for the merits of eating succulent, sweet clams like Manillas or littlenecks with nothing more than a well-seasoned butter sauce, there are simply other things to do with clams. In this dish, the clams are bathed in a rich and very slightly spicy tomato-based sauce. Cumin and garlic are accented by the fresh flavors of the red bell pepper and the lightly simmered poblano chili. The vinegar and the lemon juice provide a crisp balance to the sauce that helps to keep it from overwhelming the sweet, subtle flavor of the clams. The end result is a well balanced, flavorful, and quite attractive dish that looks great served right to the table in the same dish in which it was cooked. We served couscous with ours and had two side dishes; Zucchini and Artichoke Hearts with Charmoula and Tagine of Onions and Dates. The meal looked great and tasted even better. Yay!
There is very little fussing around with clam dishes like this since clams are really simple to prepare. About the only thing you really need to pay attention to is the selection and cleaning of the clams prior to cooking them. It is very important that your clams be live; this means that they should not be opened. If you find one that is, throw out or bad things could happen to you. Another thing worth mentioning is that clams live in sand…and people, generally, don’t like gritty food. Accordingly, an important part of preparing clams is to give them time to spit out the sand and grit that they have lodged in their tiny little bellies. Simply place the clams in your sink and cover them with cold salt water that has been made up at a concentration of 35 parts per thousand. About 1/2 cup per gallon of water should get you close. The clams should spit out most of their sand within about an hour of hanging out in the clean water. Just remember to keep them cold; water temperatures where they live are shockingly chilly (about 55 to 60 degrees F). Adding ice is perfectly acceptable as long as you don’t dilute the salt water too much.
When your clams are ready to go, heat about 2 cups of water in a shallow, broad pan that you can cover with a lid. Place your clams in the pan, cover with a lid and steam them until they are pretty much all opened. Remove them from the heat, and set them aside, uncovered. You will need to reserve the “drippings” from the steaming process to make the rest of the dish.
To make the sauce, heat oil over medium high heat in a small saucepan, add the garlic and saute until it begins to brown and then add the cumin seed. You want the cumin to begin to turn slightly red and release a nice fragrant odor. Once you are there, add about 1/3 of a cup of the reserved liquid from cooking the clams, the paprika, the tomato paste, and the vinegar. Reduce the heat slightly and continue cooking for about 2 to 3 minutes. All you really need to do is combine the ingredients and flavors.
Select the dish that you want to serve the clams in; preferably a shallow pan or, ideally a tagine. Simmer the sauce together with the peppers, chilies, and olives for about 10 minutes, covered, over to medium high heat. The chilies should slightly softened during this time. If the sauce looks like it has thickened excessively, add some more of the reserved fluid to thin it and keep it from scorching. Add the clams, lemon juice, and cilantro, stir to coat with sauce, and cover one last time. Continue cooking for another 5 minutes or until the clams are heated.
You have just made a beautiful thing, so put it on the table and dig in. This is a great dish to serve for a relaxed, conversational meal when for guests. The sauce is fantastic served over the couscous, rice, or mopped up with some French bread.
- 3 lbs. steamer clams
- 2 Tbs. olive oil
- 1 tsp. cumin seeds
- 2 to 4 cloves garlic
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. paprika
- 2 Tbs. tomato paste
- 2 to 3 poblano chilies, seeded, and sliced into strips
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and thickly sliced
- ½ to ¾ cup green olives
- 1 Tbs. cider vinegar
- 2 Tbs. lemon juice
- ¼ cup cilantro, finely chopped
- In a large, broad pan, heat about 2 cups of water and the clams, cover, and steam until clams just open. Remove from heat, drain and reserve the liquid in the bottom of the pan.
- In a small saucepan, heat oil over medium high heat. Saute garlic until browned, add cumin seeds and continue cooking until cumin if fragrant. Add the paprika, ⅓ cup of the reserved liquid, the tomato paste, and vinegar and cook until blended, 2 to 3 minutes.
- Place the sauce, olives, chilies, and bell pepper in a large tagine or shallow pot and cook over a medium to medium high heat until softened, about 10 minutes.
- Add clams. lemon juice, and cilantro to the tagine, stir to coat clams. Replace the lid and simmer for an additional 5 minutes.
- Serve over steamed couscous.