Cooked hard-shell clams are an unbeatable two-for-the price-of-one delight. You get the clams themselves and the clam liquid they give off as they cook, which creates an instant sauce with astonishing depth of flavor. And it's simple. You just combine the clams with some liquid (and aromatics, if you want — here I've added scallions, garlic and tomatoes), cover them and let them steam until the shells open.
The only tricky part is that all clams don't cook at the same pace. The first specimen might open after just 5 minutes while the last one luxuriates for three times as long. If you allow that first clam to hang out until the last clam opens, it'll end up rubbery. Accordingly, it takes a tough cook to make a tender clam. Check the steaming clams frequently and pull each one out of the pot the second its shell opens.
This very same recipe also works using a different kind of bivalve mollusk, namely mussels. You'll need about 4 pounds of these critters. Method-wise, proceed as with the clams, removing each mussel as it opens.
Clam or mussel, this sea creature must be well-cleaned before it's steamed. Start by filling a large bowl with cold water. Add the mollusks and swirl them around, then lift them out of the bowl. Dump out the sand on the bottom of the bowl, refill the bowl with clean water and repeat the procedure until the bathed clams leave no sand.
Canadian bacon adds some meat and smoke to the finished dish. (Also, it's leaner than traditional bacon.) Of course, the pescatarians among us are welcome to leave out the bacon. Likewise, folks who aren't into alcohol can substitute water for the wine. Finally, those who dislike basil can use cilantro instead.
But please don't skip the garlic bread. It's easy to make and key to the recipe. And there's no better way to sop up all that luscious clam broth.
Clam tomato and bacon stew with grilled garlic bread
Start to finish: 1 hour
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup chopped Canadian bacon
1 cup sliced white part of scallions and 1/2 cup sliced green part of scallions
1 cup medium chopped green bell pepper
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 cups medium chopped ripe tomatoes
1 cup dry white wine
4 dozen cherrystone clams, cleaned well
1/2 cup packed basil leaves, coarsely chopped
1 recipe Grilled Garlic Bread (recipe below)
In a large saucepan or Dutch oven large enough to hold all the clams, heat the oil over medium-high heat, add the bacon, reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the bacon starts to brown around the edges. Add the sliced white part of scallions and the bell pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add the white wine and the clams, cover the pot and steam, transferring the clams as they open to a bowl. Discard any clams that do not open.
Remove all the clams from their shells and return them to the pot with the tomato mixture. Reheat over medium-low heat until just hot. Stir in the basil and scallion greens.
To serve: Put 2 pieces of the grilled bread into each of 6 soup plates and spoon one-sixth of the clam mixture on top.
Grilled garlic bread
6 (1/2-inch thick) slices country bread
Extra-virgin olive oil for brushing the bread
1 garlic clove, halved
Preheat a grill or grill pan over medium heat. Brush both sides of the bread slices with the oil. Add the bread to the preheated grill and grill until it's nicely marked and crispy on both sides (about 2 minutes a side). Remove the bread from the grill and while it's still hot, rub one side of each slice with the cut side of the garlic.
Nutrition information per serving: 393 calories; 145 calories from fat; 16 g fat (2 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 75 mg cholesterol; 1,020 mg sodium; 33 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 21 g protein.
Sara Moulton is host of public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals." She was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows, including "Cooking Live." Her latest cookbook is "HomeCooking 101."