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Littleneck clams chilling out

This article is part of a series of recipes suitable for the Medieval season of Lent during which all animal products other than fish were forbidden except on Sundays. I’ll be posting at least one Lenten recipe per week until Easter Sunday (April 4, 2010).

When searching for Lenten recipes it seems natural to explore the traditional foods of countries with a long Christian tradition. One of the first that comes to mind is Italy, which is particularly useful because the cooking fat of choice in most of its regions is olive oil rather than butter, which meshes very easily with the strictures of Lent. The coastal areas of Italy are a rich source of seafood and shellfish recipes which often do not need to be changed at all. Today’s dish has the added joy of combining clams from the Adriatic sea with peas, giving us a little taste of spring before it fully arrives.

Clams spawn from April until October. Besides the fact that it is not sustainable to eat an animal during its breeding season, shellfish doesn’t taste as good during spawning. So the best time to eat them is from November through March. Depending on when Easter falls (it is calculated using lunisolar cycles and so changes each year) clams are tasty throughout most of Lent.

I prefer to cook as seasonally as I can. Using things only when they are at their peak increases our appreciation of them. For example, every year I look forward to tomato season, that brief time of juicy abundance when all I need to make an amazing meal is a little sea salt and olive oil, and maybe some bread and good mozzarella di bufala. However, I do make a few exceptions, one of which is frozen peas. They are flash frozen at the moment of harvest and so in a sort of time shifted way, they are in season when you pull them out of the freezer. Especially at the clinging end of winter I find peas particularly uplifting, giving me just a hint of the green I long for. The chopped parsley in this dish is also key. Be sure to buy very flavorful, dark green, flat leaf, Italian parsley. I was surprised at how the flavor reminded me of the baby lettuces we’ll soon be seeing in the market.

This soup is both briny and green, like a fresh sea breeze blowing through a fresh meadow, a much needed tonic at the end of winter.

Don’t be intimidated by cooking shellfish at home. Really, it’s not as hard as you think. Here are some important things to remember:

1. The clams must be fresh. They will keep for 1 day in the refrigerator, but really you should cook them the same day you buy them. If you need to store them, fill a baking dish with ice, put the clams on the ice, cover the dish with a clean wet kitchen towel, and place the dish in the refrigerator. Check the dish towel occasionally to be sure it is still wet. Do not seal clams in plastic, they are alive and need to breathe.

3. Inspect your clams carefully before cooking. They should all be firmly closed, or they should close up when you tap the shell. If a clam stays open, discard it.

4. Before cooking, scrub the outside of each clam well with a stiff brush under running water. Next, soak your clams in a bowl of water for about an hour. As they “breathe” they expel any sand that may be inside them. When finished soaking, remove the clams from the bowl carefully so as not to disturb any sand which will have fallen to the bottom of the bowl. Finally, rinse the clams one more time in fresh water, scrubbing once more with the stiff brush. Now they are ready for the pot.

Clam and Pea Soup

Adapted from Marcella Hazan

Serves 6

3 dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed and soaked (see above)
3 pounds frozen peas, thawed
1/3 cup olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
4 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
2/3 cup canned plum tomatoes, chopped, with their juice
salt
freshly ground black pepper
Crostini (optional, see recipe below)

Put your scrubbed and soaked clams in a large enough pot for them to be layered no more than 2 or 3 deep. Add 1/2 cup of water, cover and place the pot over high heat. About every 30 seconds, pick up the whole pot, and shake it while holding the cover on. If the pot is too heavy for you to do this easily, you may instead quickly take off the lid and stir the clams with a spoon, but replace the lid as soon as possible to keep too much steam from escaping. The goal is the move the clams around as they are cooking so they are all exposed to the heat evenly. After 3-5 minutes some of the clams will begin to open. Use tongs to remove the clams as soon as they open and place them in a bowl. Continue shaking or stirring every 30 seconds until all of the clams are open. In the unlikely event that you have a clam or two that doesn’t open even after a total cooking time of 10 minutes, discard them. They are most likely full of mud and sand, and you wouldn’t want to eat them.

When all of the clams have been removed from the pot, turn off the heat and tightly cover the pot.

Once the cooked clams are cool enough to handle easily, remove the meat from the shells and chop each clam into 3-4 pieces. Place the clam meat in a bowl and pour any liquid that has accumulated in the bowl where the clams were cooling back into the pot.

Line a fine mesh strainer with paper towel and pour the clam cooking liquid through it into a bowl, removing any sand and grit. Pour just enough of the strained liquid over the chopped clam meat to keep it moist and reserve any remaining clam cooking liquid for later use.

Add the olive oil to a large deep saute pan and place it over medium heat. Saute the onion until it is translucent, add the garlic and cook until it turns golden brown. Add the half of the chopped parsley (2 tablespoons), and the tomatoes with their juice. Season with a large pinch of salt and a couple of grinds of fresh black pepper. Turn the heat down, and simmer partially covered for 10 minutes to combine the flavors.

If you are serving the soup with crostini (see recipe below), this is a convenient time to make them, while the soup simmers a bit.

Add the thawed frozen peas, any reserved clam liquid and if necessary, enough water to cover the peas by about 1 inch. Cover the pot and cook for 1-2 minutes at a gentle simmer. Don’t over cook the peas, you don’t want them mushy. Taste the soup and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary.

Add the cut up clam meat and its juices. Cook just enough to warm the meat through, barley a minute or so. Be careful not to overcook here, as the clams will be come tough very quickly.

Ladle the soup into bowls, add crostini, if using, and sprinkle with the rest of the chopped parsley.

Crostini

Adapted from Marcella Hazan

Serves 6

6 slices of good white bread
olive oil

These should be made as close to serving time as possible. They will keep at room temperature for a couple of hours but no more than that.

Cut the crusts from your bread and cut it into 1/2-inch squares.

Put enough olive oil in a medium skillet to come 1/2 inch up the side of the pan. Put the skillet over medium-high heat and heat the oil until it is hot enough to make the pieces of bread sizzle (test by putting just one piece in, if it’s not time, remove it and wait a little longer).

Once the oil is hot enough, put in as many bread squares as you can without crowding the pan and turn the heat down to medium. Scoot the bread pieces around the pan with a spoon and turn them over in the oil so both sides brown evenly. Cook them until they are a light golden brown, then remove them with a slotted spoon to a plate with paper towels to absorb any excess oil. Store at room temperature until serving time.

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