Clam Chowder – Deconstructed
I’m probably in the minority with this one: I love the baby clams (shucked) that come in jars or cans.
I know that there’s usually no sitting on the fence with this issue. There’s the ‘I buy clams in their shells’ camp or the ‘I buy clams in a jar’ camp. Those baby clams taste briny like the sea. They’re also very meaty given their diminutive size, and they’re perfect for making Spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams). This spaghetti dish can be made with olive oil, or (my personal preference) with tomato sauce. In Italy, they tend to use fresh clams that are two or three centimetres in diameter. (Sorry, I don’t know what they’re called.) They’re larger than the jarred or canned variety, but smaller than the kind typically found at fish stores. The problem is that I have not been able to find clams that small. I suspect that perhaps I just haven’t been looking hard enough.
In any case, I made spaghetti alle vongole (with tomato sauce) just the other night. The whole jar normally goes into about eight cups of sauce – just at the end, to heat the clams through. This time, I made half the amount of sauce, so I could only use half the jar of clams.
What to do with those leftover baby clams? Clam chowder? Sure, except that the weather that day was nothing less than sweltering. Hot, thick soup (à la Manhattan, New England or any other place) just wasn’t going to cut it. Then inspiration struck.
I quickly took stock of what I had – besides a 3/4 cup of clams. Swiss chard fresh from my garden, cherry tomatoes, leftover grilled potatoes, onions, garlic, herbs … hmmm, those could be the makings of something really good. Here’s what I did:
I heated my cast iron skillet over low heat and set about slicing, then slowly caramelizing half an onion. Once those were brown and sweet, I spooned them onto a plate and turned up the heat under the pan. I added two garlic cloves, sliced in half, to the pan, swirled them around a bit for effect. While the pan was heating up, I sliced the leftover grilled potatoes. After about 5 minutes, the potatoes had heated through and crisped up. I scooped them out and placed them aside as well. With the pan nicely heated (and the garlic slowly caramelizing), I added the clams and a sprig of tarragon. The clams heated through very quickly and actually started to pop like popcorn! Some were no doubt overcooked, but they’re so small to begin with that instead of being rubbery, they were just crunchy – a novel and very delicious taste and texture. I had to whip the tarragon out fairly quickly, too. Tarragon has a liquorice-like taste that can get overwhelming very quickly. My sprig came from my garden, making the flavour that much more potent. In fact, I threw in a few basil leaves just to sweeten the tarragon’s flavour just a bit. It worked beautifully. Once the clams were done, I scooped them out and removed them to a plate.
I didn’t worry about keeping the components of the dish warm because my intention was to make a room-temperature salad-type dish anyway.
Meanwhile, the garlic was still caramelizing nicely. Then it was time for the swiss chard to meet the hot pan. My intention was just to wilt the leaves, add a drizzling of high quality extra virgin olive oil and a pinch or two of salt. Once they were done, I layered them along the bottom of a serving dish. By then, the garlic was ready. I mashed it, then dragged it through the swiss chard. Finally, with the pan nice and hot, it was time for the tomatoes. I sliced the cherry tomatoes in half because I like to season the inside with salt and oregano. They took next to no time at all to char lightly.
All that was left was to compose the dish and pour the wine.
I call it Clam Chowder – Deconstructed – On A Bed of Swiss Chard, and we enjoyed it with a Sicilian rosé.