Malaysian black pepper clams

With this endlessly variable formula and technique, you can be a shellfish genius in minutes

Published March 6, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

Clams are the strong, silent type of shellfish. They're not sexy like oysters and they're not dying to be everybody's friend like scallops. (And, believe me, when seared scallops are your pride and joy, it's hard to feel cheaper than the moment you realize that a one-armed monkey can make them as delicious as you can.) But what clams lack in scallops' melodic sweetness and oysters' ringing finesse, they make up for in rich, earthy minerality and bass-drum brininess. They're versatile, great on their own and pairing beautifully with both subtle and blockbusting flavors.

And as a bonus, they're about the easiest things on the planet to cook: They take just minutes, they tell you when they're done, they make their own broth, and you can dress them up or down. And if you just remember a basic framework, you can make them in any number of variations.

Below is a phenomenal recipe, clams hot and fragrant with more black pepper than you ever thought possible, rounded out with a touch of sugar and Chinese oyster sauce. It's a presentation inspired by a traditional Malaysian way to serve crab, a dish I learned from Susan Feniger and Kajsa Alger, the chefs of Los Angeles' wonderful, globally inspired restaurant Street.

But the lesson of this recipe is in its basic elements: fat, aromatics, liquid, acid and fresh herbs, each of which does its own trick with the saline, earthy flavor of clams. The fat rounds the edges of the saltiness, the aromatics give fragrance and context, the liquid creates steam to cook the clams and dilutes their salty brine, the acid cuts through the heavy earthiness, and the herbs give the dish freshness, a brightness that lifts the flavor. In this case, we're using oil and butter for fat, garlic and black pepper for aromatics, water for steam, lime juice for acid, and cilantro for the herbal note.

But you can sub in whatever ingredients you want. A classic Italian way to steam clams, for instance, is to go with olive oil (fat), garlic (aromatic), white wine (liquid and acid), parsley (freshness), and sometimes a touch of hot chilies for more of the fresh, elevating effect. The dishes taste continents apart, but both follow the same basic principles. Once you read through (and, I hope, make!) the recipe below, you can pretty much make amazing steamed clams however you want, using this framework.

One last note about flavor: Like any bivalve, clams will taste different depending on where they're from, how much rain there's been, how they've been purged of sand after harvest, etc. One batch might be very mild and another very salty. So, while I usually believe in adding a little salt all through the cooking process, with clams I try to keep as much salt out of the dish until after they've given up their liquid and I know how salty it's going to be. If "Cuisine or Death" is the chef's motto, "taste and fix" is the cook's.

Malaysian black pepper clams

Serves 2 as a main course with steamed rice or noodles

2-2¼ pounds small clams, like little necks (If you're using little necks, that's about 2 dozen)
4 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
2 teaspoons black pepper, freshly and finely ground. Measure after grinding. Yes, it's a workout
½ cup water
1 tablespoon sugar (palm sugar is great, if you have it)
2 teaspoons oyster sauce (usually available wherever you get soy sauce)
1 lime, halved
1 tablespoon butter, cold, cut into 2 pieces
4 sprigs cilantro, roughly chopped
1½ tablespoons vegetable oil

  1. First, clean the clams: OK, so after I did my best on selling you on clams, I have to tell you that I live in constant fear of biting into one and finding sand. It's harrowing. Luckily, most commercially harvested clams these days are already purged of grit, so you can forget all those bits of advice like soaking them with cornmeal. But there will likely still be grit on the shells; soak the clams in cold fresh water for a few minutes, scrub or rub them with your fingers to get them clean, and pour off the water. Rinse a few times, and drain.
  2. Choose a heavy pan with a snug-fitting lid, wide enough to fit most of the clams in one layer. In it, heat the oil over the highest heat until it's shimmery and nearly smoking-hot. Add the garlic and stir or toss. As soon as it gets golden, which will happen in a few seconds, add the pepper, stir to release its flavor to the oil, and right away add the clams. The water clinging to the shells may sputter for a moment, but be brave and toss the clams until they are all coated and glistening with oil.
  3. Add the water; it should sizzle and come to a boil very quickly. Add the sugar and the oyster sauce. Cover with the lid and shake the pan. Give the clams about two minutes in their sauna, uncover and remove any wide-opened clams to a separate bowl; they're cooked, and letting them steam further would turn them rubbery. (If they are just barely open, give them a little more time until they really pop.) Cover the pan and give it a shake, which helps the shells open wide. Uncover again after 30 seconds and repeat until all the clams are opened. If there are any really stubborn ones, like, the rest are done and these are just straight loungin' in the steam for minutes, throw them out; they probably died before you started cooking, and aren't safe to eat.
  4. Turn off the heat, squeeze half a lime into the sauce, and stir in the butter, giving the sauce a nice sheen. Give it a taste. How is it? Delicious? A bit heavy? Squeeze in more lime. Too salty? Try a little more butter or dilute it with a little water, or add a touch more sugar. You want a sauce that tastes balanced, where no one flavor dominates the others, with a seawater note and a lingering, warming burn of pepper. When it's ready, add the clams back in and stir to sauce them up. Finish with the cilantro and serve with plenty of steamed rice or noodles.

By Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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