Baked clams, also known as baked stuffed clams, are a simple preparation of finely chopped clams mixed with some combination of chopped onion, tarragon, parsley, buttered bread crumbs and béschamel made with the broth or fish stock as well as many other possible ingredients.
Though not as popular as steamed clams (steamers), littlenecks on the half shell or fried clams, baked clams are a staple of New England and Middle Atlantic kitchens and restaurant menus. Baked clams are not clam fritters, which are fried. Nonetheless, both these share one weakness: too much breading/filling, relative to the clam meat! No one orders clam-favored bread crumbs steaming in a quahog shell, but that is all too often what people get, topped with a strip of bacon as though to make up for the insult of “no meat.” Delicious baked clams begin with clam meat, and a lot of it.
Generally, steamed hard-shell clams are used. These can be from quahogs, littlenecks or cherrystones, but quahogs are most often used simply because the meats are larger, making it more efficient to remove them from the shell and chop them into a usable quantity. Steamed soft-shell clams are best served unadorned. One way to think of baked clams, in fact, is as a means of serving and eating clams that are too tough, unwieldy or chewy to eat straight from the shell.
To prepare baked clams, begin with 15-20 large quahogs, as soon after they’ve been removed from the sand as possible. Steam the clams by bringing two inches of fresh water in a large steamer pot to a rolling boil. You can add a pinch of salt when first setting the pot on the burner to make the water boil faster. The clams will be cooked and ready for use when each clam has opened its shell. Any clam whose shell has not opened is questionable: give it the smell test before you use it.
Remove the meats from the shells, then scrape so that each shell is clean. Chop the meats into fine pieces. Mix with one tablespoon each of chopped tarragon, onion and parsley and form the mixture into lumps big enough to fill each empty clam shell. Add a few grains of cayenne pepper. Use just enough béschamel to bind the mix together, and daub the top just before browning under the broiler for a short period of time.
Watch out for burning: the top of each clump in-shell should brown, but not turn black. Ideally place each clam on a bed of rock salt before placing it into the broiler, and place a short strip of bacon atop each clam just as the sheet is placed in the oven. The clams are done when the bacon is cooked. Remove from the oven and let sit for at least ten minutes. Warn your guests: clam shells retain heat longer than many folks with burned fingers believed. Serve baked clams on a single dinner plate, taking care to lift each onto the plate with tongs. Season with fresh-ground pepper and salt to taste. Include cocktail forks at each setting, so diners can dig out the delicious contents of each shell without burning themselves or making too much of a mess. A lemon wedge garnish is all you need on the plate besides one to three clams.
After dinner, gather all the shells together in a plastic bag, then tie it at the top before placing it into the trash can. Clam shells retain an odor than can attract animals. If you prefer to use the shells for decorative purposes, clean each shell by applying bleach with a brush, then scrape it clean.
There are many different recipes for baked stuffed clams. Feel free to experiment! You’ll know you’ve done well if your guests report your clams are savory to the taste, and the clam is in no way diminished by the breading. This is the cardinal sin to be avoided in any clam dish: Keep The Clam The Hero!|