I spent a number of my younger years in Florida. I have happy memories of strolling the beach eyes on the sand searching for shells. My finds were mostly brightly colored coquina, super shiny ceriths, and those ever-abundant olive shells. Occasionally more interesting specimens would wash my way and I’d be rewarded with a striped whelk or a spotted junonia. I still hit the beach sometimes and I still look for shells (in fact I’m in Key West right now!). However these days I usually leave them where I found them. Which isn’t to say I no longer get excited about shells. In fact, shells in the sink make me giddy. Particularly clam shells. Because clams in the sink mean steamed clams on the menu.
I remember the first time I really appreciated steamed clams – though it wasn’t on a Florida beach – it was in a beach town all the way across the country. I was in college and I stumbled upon Brophy Bros. restaurant in Santa Barbara, California. The restaurant sat (and still sits) on the second story of a wooden marina building on the bustling docks at the Santa Barbara Harbor. I recall a heaping bowl of shells and a half boule of sourdough bread being placed in front of me. Digging through all those shells in order to pluck out a minuscule muscle hardly seemed worth the effort. Which set me up for quite a surprise when I tasted those sweet like the sea, plump clam morsels. Maybe it was the cold beer or the spectacular view, but all I remember was the pure joy of tasting the sea by the sea. To this day there are very few meals in my life that can take me back to a time and place as quickly as steamed clams.
Steamed Clams with Chickpeas and Green Garlic
When I see clam shells in my sink I know that they carry a lot of nostalgic culinary baggage, so I quickly remind myself of the old mantra that says the best cooking comes when a just a few simple ingredients are treated with respect. Which often means doing as little as possible and simply enjoying the process. Because the process can be as wonderful as it is simple. All you need is a bit of broth – I’ve chosen white wine enriched with a decent amount of cream – and enough heat so that the clams steam open. If you’re crazy enough to put your ear near the pan as the steamed clams cook you’ll actually hear a sort of clattering as they open their shells, release their liquor with abandon, and reveal their plump secret. GREG
PS All these accolades for steamed clams and I totally forgot to point out the other special ingredient in this recipe – green garlic. It’s only available for a short while in spring. What’s green garlic? Well, in one of the greatest cookbooks ever published, Chez Panisse Cooking, Alice Waters, and Paul Bertolli write: “Garlic is commonly used as a mature plant when the bulb containing many cloves has formed. Green garlic is the same plant pulled from the ground at a much earlier stage, before the bulb forms and when the plant resembles a leek, with a stalk about 1/2-inch in diameter…Until recently, green garlic never appeared in the market and was largely unrecognized by cooks. The quality of green garlic is unique and of great use in the kitchen.”