Fried clams: A recipe for a better city
Picture this perfect moment: two old friends reunited on a brilliant July afternoon, sipping margaritas on the deck of a New England restaurant, looking out over the Essex River and munching their way through a couple of platters of museum-quality fried clams, the airy, crispy batter encrusting the tender, sweetly briny clams.
I paused long enough between bites to tell Sydna, my friend since first grade, that people outside of New England scarcely understand what a true fried clam is– a real-deal, fresh, whole-belly clam– because restaurants in the rest of the country just don't make them.
Sydna, incredulous, set down her margarita and said, "Those poor bastids."
Indeed. It's bad enough never to have tasted a fried clam– worse still to have tasted something called a fried clam, but that hasn't seen low tide for many a moon. An elderly mollusk eviscerated– rendered belly-less– and left to languish in a freezer somewhere until being thawed out and rolled in cracker crumbs or some other equally appalling breading mixture.
And how maddening to think that right here in Charlottesville we can buy a baguette at Albemarle Baking Company that is every bit as good as any bread I ever tasted in France, and at Fleurie you can order a foie gras so intensely succulent that it's a reason for living, but if you're looking for a fried clam that has never been frozen, and does not taste like fried pencil erasers, you're out of luck.
If they can reproduce complex foreign delicacies around here- and I once saw a tequila lollipop with an embedded worm for sale at the general store in Earlysville then why can't restaurants in Charlottesville serve up genuine fried clams?
It's the same country, for crying out loud. There's no language barrier, and the main ingredient, soft shell clams (Mya arenaria), are abundant in the tidal flats from Maine to Northern Virginia. The breading is a simple combination of corn flour and wheat flour. There's nothing exotic here, folks. We can do this.
Because I'm a humanitarian at heart, I'm going tell you how to make fried clams. (Feel free to clip this out and bring it to your favorite restaurant. Beg them to put these on the menu.)
Since shucking these clams can be tricky, it's best to buy the pre-shucked clams through Ipswich Shellfish Company (ipswichshellfish.com), because, unlike other clam processors, they remove the rubbery, unchewable, neck.
Into a one-gallon container, dump a beaten egg and a can of evaporated milk. Fill to the top with ice-cold water. This is the "wash" in which you will dunk each clam.
Working quickly so they don't get sticky, dunk the clam, shake off the excess wash, then roll it in a mixture of corn flour (not corn meal) and wheat flour. (The proportion of corn to wheat differs from place to place, and is top-secret information in the fried-clammery world. Experiment to see what you prefer.)
Don't dare screw this up by adding chili peppers or cilantro or any of that nouvelle cuisine stuff. Not even salt.
Back to the rolling. When the surfaces of the clams are coated and dry to the touch (again, you're working quickly), immerse them in 353-degree canola oil. Cook for about a minute as the clam's own internal juices (sealed inside the flour coating) cook the clam from the inside out.
Don't shake the frying basket, and don't pull it out of the oil to peek at the clams. You'll ruin them.
The breading will be golden brown by now, but wait for the moment when brown specks appear on the coating. That's the time to pull the clams out of the oil, before they burn. This way you maximize crispness.
Do this right, and you will have made the world a better place. You will have done more to improve the quality of life in Charlottesville than could be accomplished by any visionary city council member, festival, or impresario.
Oh, and the most important step: dump the clams onto the plate of your lucky customer– someone who is no longer a poor "bastid."
Janis Jaquith is a free spirit in Free Union.