Aqua Culture and Labor Day Grilled Clams

The Woodbury truck.

On a post about Labor Day weekend it seems appropriate to step back and give you a glimpse of the people behind the food.  Herewith, a taste of our visit to the Woodbury Shellfish aquaculture grant in Wellfleet.  Barbara and Patrick Woodbury are the sort of people you almost never hear about unless you’re in the food business.  They are local and organic down to the soles of their waders.  On two and half acres of Cape Cod tidal flats they produce hundreds of thousands of the most prized littleneck clams in New England.

First, the basics.  There are three ways to get clams–you can “scratch” them yourself, in designated intertidal areas, armed with a bucket, a clam rake and a shellfish license; you can drag for them in deeper water with a boat and a bottom dragger; or, if you’re dedicated and willing to be outdoors on days when the sun and wind can peel the skin off your face and you have to step around the spears of ice left behind by January low tide, you can raise them.  Oh, and you need 2 – 3 years while they grow from chili flake seedlings to the flattened walnuts of legal size.

Woodbury’s has been wholesaling littlenecks to upscale off-Cape restaurants for almost 25 years.  As someone who has tasted shellfish from the entire coastal perimeter of the U.S.  I think Woodbury clams are about as close to an iconic embodiment of the cold-water quahog as you can get–briny, firm textured, with a distinctive, intense flavor of, well, clams.  They are a bracing wake-up call, a bugle riff announcing the arrival of the Atlantic in your mouth.  They make clams  from Virginia, Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, or other warm-water environments seem slack-jawed and a little slow by comparison.  A Woodbury littleneck is concentrated, with a clear beginning, middle and end, with just a hint of pleasant chewiness.

These qualities have not escaped the notice of connoisseurs.  Were it not for their texture and flavor Wellfleet clams couldn’t compete in the larger world of bivalve aquaculture.   The competition is too big, the margins too small, particularly for New England clam farmers, who tend to be Lilliputian when compared with their warm-water cohorts. Florida littlenecks grow from seedling to legal size in half the time as their Massachusetts peers.  The entire  town of Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, has about 200 acres of coastal flats dedicated to aquaculture, parceled out into grants ranging from 5 acres (generous first grants, established 25 years ago, before anyone knew the business would catch on) to plots as small as an acre.  The acreage of a single clam farm in Virginia may exceed that of all the Wellfleet grants combined.  With that kind of competition, Woodbury’s has to offer something that stands out, a product that clients will purchase at a premium.

We happily accepted the Woodbury’s invitation to meet them on their grant, where along with our friend Steve Nill, we could lend a hand in “plant out,” transferring some 70,000 thumbnail-sized baby clams out of their nursery trays (called “suitcases” by the Woodbury’s) into a full-sized “row,” a 14 by 100 foot bed where they would remain until harvested, 2 or 3 years from now.

We had a great day.  I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

Back at Steve’s house in Barnstable that same evening, we grilled about 5 or 6 dozen clams as described in the recipe.  Then, figuring that lots of people would shy away from opening their own clams before grilling, we tried grilling some whole.  As they popped open I’d lift them off the grill and set them aside to cool before scraping clams and juices into a bowl, to which Jody added fresh pepper and evoo.

I brought the bowl into the house–people were already digging into the sheet pan of grilled clams on the half-shell–and cut a large round of  country style bread into thick slices.  The aroma coming out of the bowl was enough to draw people over.  Whatever reservations anyone had about a collective clam bowl disappeared as everyone grabbed a slice of bread and plunged it into the bowl.  Several dozen clams–and their juices–vanished in about five minutes.  Too fast for me to clean my hands and reach for my camera.

Maybe next year.

Note: For more pictures of the Woodbury plant-out, go to my flickr account and check out the set, Woodbury Shellfish.

Patrick, Jody and Steve standing on the Woodbury aquaculture grant.

Sam, Barbara and Patrick Woodbury.

Barbara grooming the "row" to prepare it for the seed clams.

A "suitcase" of baby clams, each as big as a fingernail, several months after entering the water the size of chili flakes.

Sam's friend, Taner Bertuna, pushing a harrow to create a trench on each of the long sides of the row.

Sam and Steve setting suitcases on the row.

Sowing the baby clams.

The baby clams will burrow into the mud, but during their vulnerable first year a net will protect them against moon snails, mud crabs, tautogs, and even ducks.

Jody walking the line. Note the cord staked over the edge of the net.

What do you mean, kneel down?

Everyone rolling the net around the cord and staking it down.

The finished row. 70,000 clams planted out!

Jody, Barbara and Steve.

Sam and Taner.

The payoff - freshly dug littlenecks.

We get to take these home, right?

Grilled Clams on the Half-Shell

Makes 40 grilled clams

Ingredients:

  • Aluminum foil
  • 40 littleneck clams (3 1/2 – 4 pounds), scrubbed
  • Freshly ground white pepper (if you only have black, use that)
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Directions:

  1. Cover a sheet pan with several pieces of aluminum foil crimped into channels to hold the clams (see photos).
  2. Prepare a hot grill.  While the grill is heating open the clams.   If you’re unfamiliar with opening clams check out the photographs and Jody’s comments below.
  3. Begin by placing a clam flat against your palm and pressing the thin edge of a knife blade where the two halves of the shell meet at the outermost rim.  Squeeze the knife until it slides between the shells.  Once the blade is all the way in, angle the knife so it scrapes across the inside of the top shell, cutting the muscles on each side.  At this point the clam should open.  Twist off the top shell and discard, trying to spill as little juice as possible.  Place the opened clam on the sheet tray in one of the foil troughs.  Repeat with the remaining clams.
  4. Sprinkle the clams with pepper and drizzle with olive oil.
  5. Place the clams on the grill.  Cook just until the olive oil and juices begin to bubble.  Don’t cook the clams to death.
  6. Using tongs, carefully return the clams to the sheet pan and invite folks to cluster around and help themselves, or place clams on a platter and serve.

Position the thin edge of the blade between the edges of the half-shells.

Squeeze, pushing the blade between the shells.

Angle the blade so it scrapes up against the topmost shell, then draw it all the way around the clam, cutting the muscles attaching the clam to the shell.

The shell should now open easily.

Finish trimming any remaining muscle. You're done. Congratulations! Now pick up another clam...

Try to save as much of the juice as possible. After 40 clams you'll be an expert.

Sheet pan with foil ridges to balance the clams (so they don't spill).

Sprinkle with pepper, drizzle with evoo.

Grill just until the juices and evoo bubble for a minute. You're only cooking the clams until they get a little firm around the edges.

Dig in!

Jody notes:

Fresh clams clam up. 

Imagine, for 3 years you’ve been happily lying around in soft muddy sand, washed and fed by in- and out-going tides, and your only job is to grow.  Suddenly, without warning, an aggressive metal hand scratches you out of the sand and into a bucket. 

You’ re rinsed, tossed around in the air, bundled up tight in a nylon bag, boxed and then set in a cold dark box to wait until someone wants to take a knife and split you open. You’d hold those two little shells together as tightly as possible too.

So, be sure your clams have rested for several hours after harvesting so they relax a bit.  If they’ve rested a day or so, it will be even easier.

You can open a clam from the front or from the back.  Some shucking pros open them from the back through the hinge that holds the two shells together.  It’s that soft dark line.  You press a blunt clam knife against the hinge until the shells separate.

I was taught to open clams from the front (the rim opposite the hinge) and still prefer this approach, the method described in the recipe.  Leave the attack-the-hinge approach to the pros. 

When Ken and I wrote IN THE HANDS OF A CHEF (William Morrow, 2002) I relied on a classic blunt clam knife.  These days I find it easier to use a sharp, thin bladed pairing knife.

More shucking tips:

  • Be sure the clams are cold.  A cold clam is a relaxed clam.  Some people like to put the clams in the freezer for fifteen minutes (no longer) to numb them up so they don’t squeeze as tightly together.  I find that keeping the clams in the refrigerator works as well, as long as you don’t give them a wild jostling while taking them out. 
  • If you’re new to opening clams use a shucking glove or a heavy towel to hold the clam so that if your knife does slip, you’re protected.
  • Find the sweet spot where you can get the blade between the shells with minimal pressure and then just press the knife into the clam.
  • If the clam won’t let you in the first time, put it aside.  It’s going to close up tight and if you try again to open it, you run the risk of the knife slipping off the shell and into your hand.
  • If you find you have a pile of tight clams, you’ll have to learn to open them from the hinge, grill them whole, or heat some extra virgin olive oil with chopped garlic in a saute pan, add the clams with some white wine and herbs and steam open (which isn’t the worse thing in the world).  

Definitely the wrong shoes.

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13 thoughts

  1. Great and tasty post!
    I cringe at the thought of using that type of knife to open clams! Using such a sharp pointed behemoth can result is serious accidental hand damage. There are clam knives available with shorter blades, rounded points and less sharp cutting edges which will do much less damage to ones hands if/when a “slip” occurs. (wish to see my scars?)
    And also,most of the protective gloves available will not protect against the sharp pointed “saber” shown in the photos.
    Thanks for the clam culture and photography!
    Cheers,
    Ted

    • Hi,Ted–
      Thanks for the comments. Glad you’re (mostly) enjoying the blog. Regarding your concerns about shucking, here’s our thought: shuck with what makes you feel the safest and most comfortable.

      The blade in Jody’s hand is a simple paring knife with a 4 inch blade. It’s rarely out of her reach when she’s in the kitchen. You can open clams with the shorter, rounded-tip blade of a clam knife, but the paring knife feels more comfortable in our hands. Both Jody and I started out shucking clams with traditional clam knives, then Jody switched to a paring knife and, eventually, so did I. It feels easier and safer, for the simple reason that less force is involved in getting the edge of the blade between the shells. Less force means less likelihood of slipping, and slipping is when, as you observed, you get into trouble.

      Clam knives typically have rounded, blunted tips, which makes it harder to scrape up against the inside of the shell to cut the muscle. The sturdier blade of a clam knife does have the advantage of being able to “pop” the shell (ignoring the muscles and simply rotating the knife, forcing the shells open, at which point you can see the muscles and simply cut them). You’re right about the shucker’s mitt–it probably won’t protect you against a direct stab, but I’ve never seen that happen. All of the injuries I’ve seen have been the result of people pinning a clam to a counter top with one hand and trying to force a clam knife through the hinge with another. If they don’t find the hinge sweet spot they try to blast through with brute force, the clam knife slips off, and the rounded tip goes into the meat at the base of someone’s thumb.

      Jody teaches her staff and students with paring knives, but anyone can switch to a clam knife if it makes them more comfortable. Thanks for your comment.

      Ken

  2. I simply go to Chinatown for littlenecks, because I’m way too lazy to shuck. Gourmet Dumpling House or Taiwan Cafe. Black bean sauce & basil. Yum. That said, the recipe looks marvelous, and it’s so simple too.

  3. For those of us who live inland and don’t have access to or experience with fresh seafood, how to know REALLY if the clams at the market are fresh? We landlubbers find that intimidating.

  4. First of all, sorry you couldn’t join us on this expedition–you could see what a spectacularly fresh clam looks and tastes like.

    Clams are one of those things where the term “trusted fishmonger” comes into play. What does he/she say about the clams? What do they look like? Clams whose shells are partially opened, as though they’re gasping for breath, are a bad sign. Conversely, if you bang your hand against the bag and the clams all close up, then you don’t have to worry. Fresh clams are responsive. If nothing happens (they remain open) head for the meat counter.

    If all the clams are tightly closed they can be more difficult to judge (although, ironically, this may also mean they’re in great shape), since the tap-and-close method can’t be used. I’m afraid the only real way to be sure is to open them up–and sniff–which you can usually only do after you’ve already bought them. They should smell clean, maybe a little briny–definitely not marshy or anything funky that you’d associate with a low tide.

    The surest thing to do, if you don’t live near where they’ve grown up, is to buy them and grill them WITHOUT opening them first. Healthy clams will open after a few minutes on a hot grill. Any that remain stubbornly closed should be discarded–they were dead by the time they hit the grill. Basically it’s the same rule that you apply to steamed clams. Any that don’t open, or barely open, should be thrown away.

    Good luck!

    Ken

  5. Reading this while watching Alex’s day off on Food Network – she’s grilling clams, too! Maybe it’s a sign we need to grill clams tonight. Thanks for the great info. Looking forward to the oyster festival in Wellfleet this fall, as well.

    • Jody and I were judges in the shucking competition a few years ago–I must have eaten (not as a judge) about 6 dozen oysters in two days! I just couldn’t get enough. Have a great time! Ken

  6. I’ve never been big on clams in anything but a chowder, though I love a good oyster so go figure. I’ve never had them grilled like this, and they do look mighty appealing, perhaps I’ll give them a try. I love a woman not afraid to wear white when digging clams, you go Jody!

    • Steve, you will love these.
      Hey, Labor Day weekend was my last chance to wear white this year. Actually, we got up so early, I wasn’t thinking about the mud. You should have seen the later pics.

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