Clams are summer's mollusk champions. David Pasternack should know. The James Beard Award-winning chef-owner of the Italian fish restaurant Esca in Manhattan grew up, and still lives, on Long Island. When he's not cooking, he's fishing along the South Shore, farther out in the North Atlantic or, potentially, anywhere on Earth fish run.
But in summer, no Alaskan halibut or Hawaiian opakapaka outshines the humble clam.
"Clams go great with all that summer produce -- corn, zucchini, tomatoes -- and they are plentiful and fat during the summer," Pasternack said. Not that any clam will do. "Long Island clams are the best, better than New England. And don't even think about eating clams from south of here."
We spent a morning with Pasternack in the kitchen of Artie's South Shore Fish & Grill, the fish market-restaurant in Island Park. Owner Artie Hoerning and Pasternack are old friends and fishing buddies and, over the course of a few hours, the chef made use of dozens of the market's littlenecks, cherrystones and steamers.
Smartly easing open a cherrystone, Pasternack pointed approvingly to the glistening meat. "Look at that fat clam, that orange color," he said. "This is clam season."
Here are four of Pasternack's signature recipes.
BAKED CLAMS WITH HORSERADISH
Pasternack likes to use clams of different sizes for this recipe since "some people like the little ones, some people like the big ones." The key to success is to go easy on the bread crumbs. "It's a recipe for clams, not crumbs."
2 dozen clams, any size, well scrubbed
Juice of 1 lemon
1 fresh horseradish, peeled, or 1 to 2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup bread crumbs (recipe follows)
2 tablespoons butter, cut into chunks
1. Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Shuck clams, reserving all juice. (Your fishmonger will do this; make sure he gives you the juice.) Place clams in a shallow, rimmed baking dish or casserole you can serve in. Squeeze lemon over clams. Grate horseradish over clams (amount depends on how spicy you want them to be). Drizzle olive oil over clams. Don't be too neat about grating, squeezing and drizzling because you also are creating a sauce in the pan that you'll use to moisten the cooked clams.
2. Using your fingers to pinch the crumbs, place a little pile onto each clam -- less than a teaspoon for small clams. Place butter in pan around clams. Bake 7 to 10 minutes, until the tops of the piles of crumbs are dark brown but not burned. The "gravy" on the bottom of the pan will be bubbling and starting to emulsify. It will be as delicious as the clams; make sure you dip each clam in it before eating. Makes 4 servings.
SEASONED BREAD CRUMBS
Whether he's using freshly made bread crumbs or unflavored ones from a can, Pasternack always toasts them in oil before using them "for better flavor and texture." This recipe will make more than you need for the baked clams; use the rest for chicken or veal cutlets.
1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 to 2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups unseasoned bread crumbs
1 lemon, zested (reserve juice for baked clams)
¼ cup chopped parsley
Salt and pepper
Film pan with oil. Add garlic and cook over medium-high heat. When it starts to wilt around the edges and just starts to color, add bread crumbs and toast, stirring frequently, until color changes a shade darker. Add lemon zest and parsley, salt and pepper and continue to toast a few minutes longer, until crumbs are golden. Makes 2 cups.
Pasternack uses a variety of clams -- littlenecks and steamers in the shell, sliced cherrystones -- for this quick chowder, but it will work with one type, too.
24 cherrystone clams, well scrubbed
2 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup chopped onions
1 clove garlic, sliced
1 cup peeled and chopped zucchini (corn kernel-size pieces)
Sprigs of fresh tarragon
1½ cups corn kernels (slice them off the cob, then use the back of a knife to scrape the cob, saving the juice)
18 littleneck clams, well scrubbed
12 big steamers, well scrubbed
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup cream
Grilled bread, for serving
1. Shuck cherrystones and slice each into 4 or 5 pieces. Reserve all juice from shucking and slicing and set aside. (Your fishmonger will shuck clams; ask him to save the juice for you.)
2. Film pan with olive oil and add onions with a pinch of salt. Cook onions over medium heat, stirring frequently, until they have softened and are translucent but not browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Add garlic, toss for a minute, then add zucchini and a few sprigs of tarragon. Cook until zucchini is soft, adding more olive oil if needed to keep mixture fluid. Add corn and continue to sauté until it's just tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat. You can do this ahead of time.
3. Place littlenecks in a large skillet with 1 cup reserved cherrystone juice. Cover and place over high heat. When liquid starts to boil, add reserved vegetable mixture. Cover, continue to cook. When littlenecks start to open, add steamers. Cover and continue to cook, moving clams around occasionally, until they are mostly open. Add butter, sliced cherrystones and cream. Cook over high heat, stirring everything together, until cherrystones have just lost their rawness. Add a lot of black pepper. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
LINGUINE WITH CLAMS
David Pasternack, a man of strong opinions, has plenty of them when it comes to linguine with clams, a dish he says is often done poorly. First, "It's gotta be made with dried pasta, not fresh." Second, "It's gotta be a little bit oily -- the pasta should be slick with olive oil." Finally, most people -- and restaurants -- use "way, way, way too much garlic. It shouldn't be raw, but it shouldn't be too brown. And it's gotta be sliced, not chopped. You remember that scene in 'Goodfellas' where Paul Sorvino is in prison slicing garlic with a razor"
12 cherrystone clams, well scrubbed
2 to 3 ounces pancetta (frozen for easy slicing)
4 cloves garlic, sliced
Red hot pepper flakes
24 littleneck clams, well scrubbed
½ cup dry white wine
1 pound linguine
½ cup chopped parsley
1. Shuck cherrystones and slice each into 4 or 5 pieces. Reserve all juice from shucking and slicing and set aside. (Your fishmonger will do this; make sure he gives you the juice.) Bring a large pot of water to boil and salt generously. It should taste like seawater.
2. Stack slices of frozen pancetta and slice into matchsticks. Film a wide (12-inch) skillet with oil. Add pancetta and cook over medium heat until pancetta renders most of its fat and starts to sizzle. Add garlic and hot pepper. When garlic just starts to color (do not let it brown), add littlenecks and white wine. Turn heat to high, cover pan and cook, shaking occasionally. Add linguine to boiling water.
3. After they've been cooking for 2 minutes, start checking clams. Remove them to a plate as soon as they open. When they are all removed, turn off heat and add about half a cup of reserved clam juice to pan.
4. When linguine is about 2 minutes from being cooked, turn heat under clam sauce to high and, using a pair of tongs, transfer linguine directly to pan along with sliced cherrystones. Toss vigorously in sauce. Pasta will finish cooking in the sauce, as will the cherrystones. As you toss, add rest of clam juice -- if you don't have any, add a few spoonfuls of the pasta-cooking water -- and enough additional olive oil so pasta is shiny. When pasta is cooked, there should still be some liquid in pan but linguine should not be swimming. Add reserved littlenecks and parsley, and toss everything together. Makes 4 servings.
You want a light, citrusy beer for this recipe. Pasternack used Great South Bay Blonde Ambition.
1 boiled potato, roughly chopped
2 or 3 ribs from the heart of a head of celery, or a good handful of celery leaves
Sprigs of lemon thyme or thyme (optional)
1 teaspoon crushed coriander seeds
¼ to 1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 (12-ounce) bottle beer
2 tablespoons butter
4 pounds steamers, scrubbed
Place all ingredients in a large pot -- the clams on top of everything else -- cook over high heat for 5 to 8 minutes, until clams open and are just cooked. Makes 4 servings.
Clams have an undeserved reputation as "risky" fare. In fact, they are one of the most regulated foods on the market. Aphrodite Montalvo, spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, summarized the steps taken by the DEC to ensure that clams are safe for eating:
The DEC, she said, tests thousands of marine water samples in Nassau and Suffolk counties each year to certify areas as safe for shellfish harvest. Of the approximately 1.2 million acres of shellfish "lands" in New York, about 1 million acres are certified safe; 200,000 acres are currently closed to shellfish harvest. Last September, the DEC closed shellfish lands in Huntington and Northport harbors due to reported food-borne illnesses associated with the consumption of raw oysters and hard clams from that harvest area. No closures have been implemented this year. (Up-to-date information on closures is available at dec.ny.gov).
To facilitate the identification and recall of questionable clams, all clams arrive at the market with a tag that identifies the harvester's name, permit number, harvest date and location. Fish markets are required to keep these tags on hand.
To continue the chain of safe handling, once you get clams home, keep them in a bowl covered with a damp towel in the refrigerator. Try to use them within a day or two. Before cooking or serving, discard any clam whose shell is broken. If a clam is ajar, tap it and it should close. If it doesn't, throw it out. Likewise, discard any clams that don't open after being cooked.