Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Nearly Instant Appetizer: Grilled Clams alla Basilico

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August, while full of sunshine and long, warm days, can can be a very long month for shellfish lovers.

As the old rule goes, oysters are best in the "ber" months -- September, October, November, December -- the later in the year the better. In August, with water temperatures right where bacteria like them, fans of raw bivalves often find themselves looking for alternative ways to fulfill this craving.

The good news is, all hope is not lost -- right now is the best time to indulge in littleneck clams. Silver-dollar sized, these morsels of fresh brine and milky flesh are a great way to add life to any meal. Best of all, in late summer they're safe to eat, cheap (about four dollars a pound if you know where to look), and, using this recipe, ready to eat in minutes.

Let's get right to it.

Grilled Clams alla Basilico
Feeds about two hungry people, or four as a appetizer

3 Pounds Live Littleneck Clams
10-15 leaves fresh Basil
1/4 cup Olive Oil
Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1 Baguette (optional)
[EDITOR'S NOTE #1: If you can't find littlenecks, feel free to sub in baby New England "steamer" clams. They're a fine replacement. That being said, don't go trying this recipe with Quahogs or something silly like a Geoduck. You'll just be setting yourself up for a rubbery mess.]

Start by heating up your grill. Charcoal is best, followed by an electric smoker filled with wood chunks (what I used here), followed by gas. Get the grill nice and hot.

Next, rinse your clams in a colander. Run cold water over them, checking each clam, one at a time, to make sure they're sealed shut. If there are clams that won't close after you give them a poke, toss them; they're a recipe for dysentery. Most littlenecks are sold debearded, so this process won't take long.

If you sense there's a lot of grit on the clams, you can also soak them briefly in a quart of water that's had a tablespoon of flour mixed into it. This will cause the clams to expel any sand inside of them. On the other hand, it will also mean you'll lose some of the delicious seawater flavor inside, so consider this judiciously.

Quickly place the clams on the grate of the hot grill. Have a friend help you, if there's one hanging around your house; you want to get the clams on the grill and the lid fitted over the entire operation as fast as you can.

Keep the clams covered for five minutes. Open the lid and check to see if the clams are open. If they aren't, cover again, and check every two minutes thereafter. When all but one or two clams are open, move on to the next step (and toss out the closed clams).

Quickly scoop up the clams from the grill grate. While you can use tongs or a spatula to do this, I've found that you lose lots of the delicious, delicious liquid trapped inside of the clamshells. That's good flavor. If you don't care about burning your fingertips in the name of gastronomic enjoyment (my kind of people), pick up the clamshells one at a time and place them onto a plate. Remember that friend who helped you put the clams on the grill? Now is a good time to have them help you again.

At this point, drizzle the whole thing with olive oil, and crack the black pepper over top.

[EDITOR'S NOTE #2: Note the plate is on a grill in this picture. This is not the same grill as I cooked the clams on -- if it had been the same grill, I would (1) have overcooked the clams and (2) risked my plate cracking/burning someone. I happened to put the plate on another grill I had lying around. Just use a picnic table like a sane person.]

Next, get your fresh basil -- this time of year I bet you've either got a big bush of the stuff outside, or you'll find that they're practically giving it away at your local farmer's market/grocery.

Chiffonade (i.e. layer the leaves one on top of the other and slice them very thin) the basil on a cutting board, and sprinkle it over the hot clams.

And that's it! Bring the plate to the table ASAP, and suggest people dig right in with their hands. If you have a baguette lying around, pass around chunks so that folks can soak up the leftover juices.

The final product:

This is the perfect late summer recipe -- bursting with raw, bracing basil, fresh shellfish, and buttery, peppery olive oil. What more could you ask for? Maybe a slice of lemon spritzed on top? Go ahead. It's your dish. I highly suggest you try this; paired with a tall, cool pilsner or pale ale, I can't imagine any better way to while away an afternoon.

Music: Elvis Presley: "Do The Clam"

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