The littleneck saltwater clam is the most popular of the hard-shelled clams, technically small quahogs, Mercenia mercenaria. No visit to an East Coast seaside resort would be complete without a serving of a half-dozen “clams on the half-shell.” Your small plate is served with six clams opened up with one shell removed, so the clam bodies are facing up.
The plate has a garnish of a lemon wedge and cocktail sauce. This is a red sauce similar in appearance to ketchup, but spicier. It often contains Tabasco sauce and/or fresh chilies. Purists eat the raw clams straight from the shell without adornment. Others squeeze the lemon quickly over each clam. Cocktail sauce is daubed on, if desired, by means of a tiny fork.
In these fearful times, we are warned the consumption of raw seafood is linked to certain illnesses. So is the consumption of raw vegetables, particularly alfalfa sprouts, but you don’t often see people in panic over a questionable carrot, or lettuce of no obvious origin. The safest way to be sure a raw clam is safe is to use cocktail sauce. In the Gulf Coast region, unlike the Northeast, the protozoan Vibrio vulnificus is ubiquitous and can cause serious illness, but researchers were astonished to find a key distinction between those who got sick from the same shellfish and those who did not. It was the cocktail sauce. Turns out the spiciness of the sauce acts as an antibiotic, and kills many types of seaborne microorganisms. Other precautions: ask if your clams are local. Local clams are fresher. Be more cautious of clams in big-city restaurants than in rural areas due to the potential for septic contamination. Finally, one trick should always keep you safe: before you add lemon juice or cocktail sauce, and before you eat, smell your clams. Spoiled shellfish has a unique rank odor impossible to miss. If your clams smell fresh, you are generally in good shape.
Littlenecks are the smallest hardshell clams, generally just over the size of an old-fashioned one-dollar coin, or about two and one-half inches. Digging for them is easy if one is near the coast. Littlenecks are raked. First one purchases a shellfishing license from the local town jurisdiction. These are generally $50 or less for a season (summer is the most pleasant time to go clamming), and you get them at Town Hall. Next, buy a clam rake, a sun hat and some sunblock … you will need it. Check the Internet, or the local hometown weekly newspaper for tide charts. You want to head out at dead low tide. Finally, ask at a bait-and-tackle store, or sporting goods store specializing in fishing equipment, where the best clam beds are. Littlenecks are harvested generally in two types of areas: “bay beaches” and channels or inlets. The former, are the better-known “clam flats,” areas of consistent depth that may stretch for up to a half-mile or so before you reach the water at dead low tide (example: Cape Cod Bay beaches). Wade into the water knee-deep or higher – that’s where your clams will be. In a harbor channel or marsh inlet, the depth plunges more quickly a short distance from shore – wade in at the same depth as with bay beaches. An extra consideration when clamming near a marsh is insect repellent. Whenever there’s some wind, you probably won’t need this, but it’s good to have handy. When the wind is still, various bugs like to attack including deerflies (black translucent wings, the flies have an affinity for head hair), midges (tiny black lines of 2-3 millimeters, but then they bite, it itches), horseflies (“greenheads,” strong enough to take a swat and fly away) and “no-see-ums.” Like their name, you won’t know these insects have bitten you until the next day, when the itchy swelling begins. I can’t tell you what they look like.
With your clamming license, you will generally receive a shiny metal ring. Clams that can pass through the ring are next year’s seed crop. They are illegal to harvest. Clams that cannot pass through the ring are OK. The smallest clams that cannot pass through the ring are littlenecks. Clams with a diameter bigger than littlenecks, but below the size of a tennis ball are cherrystones. Any hard-shelled clam bigger than that is a quahog.
It is possible to steam littleneck clams, but unnecessary. They are most delightful raw and straight from the ocean.|