Once, my mom and I went on a clam tour of coastal Connecticut. Clam country. We were driving back to New York from New London, where my older sister Jill went to college. We kept stopping at little restaurants and inns for snacks. And we kept ordering clams: baked, fried, steamed, stuffed, Casino. I am at my happiest when eating clams.
In baked clams and clams Casino, which are fairly similar except for the chopping of the clams in the former and the necessity of adding bacon in the latter, the Italian-American way with flavors really shines. As you reach for your ninth clam, it starts to make sense why one would take the trouble to pack clamshells with buttery breadcrumbs and why sometimes adding grated Parmesan to a fish-based dish is a valid move.
Since there was no reason to relegate my clam indulgence to some coastal Connecticut of the past, I recently ventured to the fish shop to buy clams and set to work steaming, chopping, stuffing, and baking. It’s really not all that much work. The clams have the same balance of briny and rich that I love in these Cod Cakes with Old Bay.
They’re worth the little extra effort and are a ridiculously fabulous, slightly retro first course to serve to friends during one of the season’s last barbecues. Or to stuff your face with as you reminisce about high school road trips with your mom. Either way.
Perfect Baked Clams
Makes 24 clam halves, serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer
When I was testing these, we each ate 8 to 10 clam halves, plus a salad, as our dinner. Highly recommend!
12 Littleneck clams, stored in a bowl of water with a tablespoon of cornmeal stirred in
1/4 cup white wine (optional)
1 onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoons salt
1 heaping cup freshly ground breadcrumbs made from 2 to 3 slices of good bakery bread
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1/2 cup chopped parsley
juice from half a lemon
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Place the clams in a medium Dutch oven or other heavy pot with a lid. Add the wine and 1/2 cup water and place the pot over medium heat with the lid on. After 2 minutes, start checking to see if clams have opened and remove any that have, reserving the cooking liquid in the pot. When all clams are cooked, remove the meat from the shells, and dice each clam into 6 pieces, adding the pieces to a small bowl. Clean off the shells and break them apart so that you have two half shells from each clam.
Meanwhile, cook the onion in a medium frying pan in 2 tablespoons olive oil for about 10 minutes, until translucent. Season with the 1 teaspoon salt. Add the garlic and cook another minute or two, then remove from the heat.
Place the breadcrumbs in a bowl. Add about 1/4 cup of the clam cooking liquid, the remaining olive oil, and the melted butter. Toss to moisten the crumbs. Add the onions and garlic, clams, parsley, lemon juice, and Parmesan to the breadcrumbs. Combine everything.
Arrange the clam shells on a baking sheet. Divide the filling mixture among the shells, pressing it in so it stays. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until the filling is heated through and crisp on top. Serve the clams immediately.