Quahogs aka Hard Shell Clams ~ Martha’s Vineyard

One of the advantages to living on Martha’s Vineyard is access to some of the world’s best and freshest seafood.  While we have some fantastic fish markets on the Island, it’s just not the same as getting out there and harvesting your own ingredients.

Hungry Native Martha's Vineyard Food Blog Clams Clamming Quahogs

Quahogs are a type of hard clam usually found buried in the sand along tidal flats and sand bars.  It’s generally best to start hunting for clams about an hour before low tide, as this will maximize your low-water time.

Hungry Native Martha's Vineyard Food Blog Clams Clamming Quahogs Coop's Clam Rake

Clamming (no-one calls it “clam-digging” on the Vineyard) for Quahogs is generally done with a Clam Rake.featuring a basket welded to the tines for retaining the catch.  Another essential piece of equipment is the Gauge, used to measure the clams.  Clamming tools can be found at most bait and tackle shops.

Hungry Native Martha's Vineyard Food Blog Clams Clamming Quahogs

Shellfishing regulations vary from town to town, but all the Island towns require you to purchase a license, so check with your town hall to make sure you have everything in order before heading out.  Quahogs are graded and sold in several sizes, each with their own name.  Littlenecks are the smallest and most tender, followed by the slightly larger Cherrystones and finally, the largest (and toughest) Chowder clams (aka Chowders).  Depending on where you find yourself, you might also find them described as Topnecks or Countnecks, but these terms are rarely used on the Vineyard.

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Typically, the smaller, more tender clams are served raw, on the half-shell, while the larger more chewy specimens are reserved for chowder or other cooked applications.

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While everyone has their ideas on how to shuck quahogs, this is the method that works for us.  Do yourself a favor and pickup a good Clam Knife, using the wrong knife, especially if you are a novice, can be dangerous.  Nobody likes bloody clams.  Some people opt for a cut resistant glove.for added protection.

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If you are right-handed, hold the clam in your left hand, with the hinge of the clam shell pointing (bending) towards your thumb.

Hungry Native Martha's Vineyard Food Blog Radonsky for the New Millenium Alton Brown ©HungryNative.com

Next, using your right hand to grasp the knife, line the blade up where the shells meet.  It’s best to start closer to your left index and middle fingers, the gap between the two halves is a little bit more pronounced here and it’s easier to position your knife.  Using steady pressure with your left fingers on the back of the knife, as well as your right thumb on the bottom of the clam, push the blade in and cut across the entire clam, separating the shell by cutting the two muscles that hold the bivalve shut on each side.

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You basically have one shot at this, if it doesn’t work, the quahog will “clam up”, clamping down tight to protect itself.  If this happens, just pop the clam in the freezer for a few minutes and try again.

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Once you have separated the shells, use the blade to slice the adductor muscles away from the top…

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…and bottom shells, freeing up the meat.

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Twist away the top half of the shell and you have perfect clams on the half shell.

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As much as we love raw Littlenecks, some people aren’t as crazy about raw seafood.  If you are looking for a recipe that softens their “rawness” a bit while still maintaining a true quahog flavor, it’s hard to beat this recipe from Food Network’s resident food nerd, Alton Brown.  He calls it “Radonsky for the new Millennium” for reasons, despite many google searches, that remain a mystery to us.  You start by shucking, or, as Alton says, “Half shelling” 2 dozen Littlenecks and saving them.  Then, mix together 1/4 cup seasoned breadcrumbs (we used Italian seasoned panko), 1/4 cup four, 1 tablespoon of grated parmesan, and a 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and freshly ground pepper in a bowl.  Heat 3 tablespoons of bacon fat in a pan until almost smoking (we store ours in the freezer for just such an occasion).  Cover each clam with the breadcrumb mixture.  This is going to become a crust, so don’t be shy with it.

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Once the fat has come to temperature, place the clams topping side down in the pan, leaving the shells on.  Let them cook for 2-3 minutes, depending on your heat and size of clams.

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Remove them when the topping is crispy and golden brown.  Serve in the shell, with the breaded side up.  Top them with freshly chopped parsley and a dash of malt vinegar (or squeeze of lemon).

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The topping comes out extremely crispy and flavorful, almost reminiscent of the crust on a good eggplant parmesan or your favorite mozzarella stick.  The melted cheese holds everything together, while the breadcrumbs soak up loads of rich, fatty bacon flavor.  The natural sweet brininess of the quahog teams up perfectly with the salty crust and savory bacon fat, practically calling out for a cold beer.  Since they are barely cooked, the meat remains tender.   A touch of parsley brightens things up while a few shakes of vinegar counters any murky or fishy flavors that the clams might harbor.  If, like us, you love the flavor of quahogs, by all means, omit the vinegar.  But, if you have guests that are a bit unsure about them, up the vinegar dose and you might just have some new converts to the world of quahogs.  Of course, it is getting a bit cold for clamming this time of year, but this recipe works just as well with store bought clams.

Check out our articles on Martha’s Vineyard Bay ScallopsMole Crabs and other Seafood, as well as these great cookbooks on Oysters.and other Shellfish.

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