When summer fades and the season tilts to autumn, my senses heighten. The lower light casts a gauzy glow, stretching the shadows lazy and long. The air turns cool and sharp, tinged with wood-burning smoke and the essence of dew on fallen leaves. Wind gusts grow blustery, and fog bears beads of mist and drizzle. No longer stultified by heat and humidity, my appetite grows and shifts to warmth and comfort, craving steaming bowls of chowder and stews, warm drinks and fortifying libations. This steamy bowl of buttery clams hits the spot.
I experienced a meal like this one day last fall, when I was in Washington researching a travel story on the northern coast of the Olympic peninsula. In true Pacific Northwest form, the weather was gray, foggy and misty with intermittent (i.e. frequent) rain showers. Yes, it was seasonally wet. It was also magical, mystical and magnificent. The horizon loomed with teetering mountains, shrouded in swirls of clouds and fog and bedecked with garlands of waterfalls cascading into serpentine lakes. It was desolate, due in part to the weather and also the season.
I had the roads to myself, snaking through canyons, interrupted occasionally by logging trucks barreling past, shocking me out of my reverie. I hiked to a ridge, rain be damned, with distant views to British Columbia, through a mist-laden rain forest lush with moss. I traced a river to a roaring crescendo of water tumbling from a precipitous ledge, and I saw salmon spawn.
By the end of the day, I was cold, soggy and famished. I returned to sea level, to a small fishing town anchoring the mountains to the sea. There were no restaurants open at 4 p.m. but for one lone storefront fish market that provided counter service, and I ordered a simple bowl of garlicky clams steamed in wine and swimming in their buttery juices, with slabs of garlic bread for soaking up the sweet broth. The singular accompaniment was an icy glass of snappy local riesling. It was perfect. Since then, I’ve re-created this dish at home a number of times. It’s simple and consistently rewarding. The only thing missing is the weather.
Littleneck clams are my preferred type of clam for this recipe. They are the smallest quahog clam, with sweet and tender meat. Depending on their size, 1 pound yields 8 to 12 clams. When cleaning clams, discard any opened clams or those with broken shells before washing. Rinse the clams under cold water, gently scrubbing them clean. Once cooked, discard any unopened clams before serving.
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups un-oaked white wine
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds littleneck clams, about 24, rinsed and scrubbed clean
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley leaves
In a large, deep skillet with a lid, melt the butter with the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute until soft and fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the wine, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt and black pepper. Bring to a simmer and add the clams. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to medium-low, and steam the clams until the shells have opened, shaking the pan from time to time, 6 to 8 minutes, depending on the size of the clams.
Remove the lid and discard any unopened clams. Taste the broth and season with additional salt and pepper if desired. Divide the clams and cooking liquid among serving bowls and garnish with the parsley. Serve immediately with lemon wedges and garlic bread or crusty bread.
Lynda Balslev is an award-winning cookbook author, recipe developer, tester and editor. Taste Food is distributed by Andrews McMeel Syndication.