Forget Oysters; Who First Ate A Steamer?

Everyone jokes about who ate the first oyster; and that is a good question. Oysters are a bit…odd looking, certainly compared with a piece of steak or a carrot. But steamers are even stranger looking. At least an oyster looks like a plain old rock until you open it. Steamers look like aliens in their natural state! But whoever that brave soul was: thank you, thank you, thank you. A clean, perfectly cooked bowl of steamers, or long-neck clams, or piss-clams, or Ipswich-clams, or whatever they are called in your neighborhood, is easily the top of the clam pecking order. Yes, I know, clams don’t have beaks, but steamers have that nose (snout?), so it isn’t a completely tortured metaphor.

I cooked a dozen or so steamers a few nights ago and they were glorious. I don’t know if it is because they were particularly fresh, or I purged them in salt water (this has my vote) for a few hours before cooking, or I cooked them perfectly. What I do know is that they were wonderfully sweet, with just a bit of saltiness. They were firm but tender, certainly not mushy or chewy. They were simply great. And preparing them couldn’t be easier.

I started with a big bowl of salted water. I tried to replicate the salinity of the ocean, so I made it with 10 cups of fresh, cold water and 3 ounces of salt (that makes a 3.5% solution). I dumped the clams into the water and stuck the bowl in the refrigerator for a few hours. The clams purged themselves of most of the mud and sand, so when I cooked them, they were wonderfully clean. And cooking them is simply steaming them in a pot with about a cup of fresh water. I let them steam for a few minutes after the water began to boil. Then, I took the clams out of the pot, poured the liquid into two cups, added a bit of butter in each, cut up a baguette, and feasted. Dipping the bread into the broth is about as decadent as eating can be. This was the first time that I bothered to purge the clams, and I think that it made a big difference. Some recipes call for corn meal, as well as salt water for purging, but I am not sure that would add anything other than a mess.

This is an American dish, specifically from New England, although they are popular as far south as Maryland. Supposedly, the British eat steamers, but I have never seen them there, or for that matter, anywhere in the world but here in America. So, my many international readers, you are out of luck. But the exchange rate is great for you, so zip over here for a bowl of some fantastic American steamers — you won’t be sorry.

8 Replies to “Forget Oysters; Who First Ate A Steamer?”

  1. I would also note that the purging process rids the steamer of about 90% of the lipophilic contaminants, most of which are attached to the sediment particles. Moral of the story: even if you do not discern any improvement in flavor, not a bad idea to purge simply for health reasons.

  2. Isn’t it wonderful when form and function meet? Obviously you are knowledgable, so what is the optimum length of time to purge a steamer? I did it for a few hours and I found no sediment in the flesh. Will purging for a day remove even more of the contaminants? And what about using corn meal?Say hello to Alabama for me.

  3. A 24 hour purging period will remove all of the sediment; this is the standard purge used when assessing contaminant levels in shellfish (per NOAA). Obviously, shorter periods will suffice for human consumption needs (a few hours, as you have indicated). Longer periods will NOT remove the contaminants from the flesh to any significant degree. The corn meal suggestion confuses and frightens me. What is its purpose? I can’t imagine that throwing corn meal into the water makes any difference. If anything, it will ruin the “dipping broth”. Surely they aren’t suggesting the steamers should be rolled in corn meal after they’re popped from the shell?

  4. Forget the steamers…who was the first brave soul to eat an abalone? They are a pain in the ass to harvest and not simple to prepare for cooking. Suggestions?

  5. Ah, the mysteries of stupid ideas that become part of the culture. I have no idea what the corn meal is supposed to do. Maybe the assumption is that the clams will eat the corn meal and it will flush their systems of all other matter, including mud and sand and other things. It sounded stupid to me, so I have never done it. A few hours in salt water worked very well, so until someone convinces me otherwise, that is the new paradigm! Steamers are wonderful when fried, but that is a different topic.

  6. I used to dive for abalone all the time. But I can’t fit into my wetsuit anymore, and commercial abalone is a pale reflection of fresh abalone. You will have to befriend a young and stupid Northern California diver who is willing to trade a few abalone for some shiny buttons and a six pack of Coors. Diving for them can be tiring, and cleaning them is faintly disgusting. Slicing and pounding the steaks just takes time. But as you may know, it is worth it. Seriously, the coastal indians watched otters and seals eat the abalone and figured that something must be good about them. I haven’t read it in years, but The Ohlone Way, by Malcolm Margolin, is an interesting description of indian life in the San Francisco Bay Area and Monterey Bay.

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