Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Summer of Summer: The From-Aways, and some tips for steaming clams!

The opening line of my friend and agent sister-wife CJ Hauser's incredible debut novel, THE FROM-AWAYS, is so good that I can recite it from memory. "I have two lobsters in my bathtub and I'm not sure I can kill them." That right there is one of those powerful first sentences that both intrigues you and lets you know you're going to be in good hands as the story unfolds. Leah, one of the book's two narrators, has moved with her new husband from Manhattan to the small Maine fishing village where he grew up, in an attempt to dig down and create roots she's never had. Cooking lobsters, Leah feels sure, will be a shortcut to those roots, via a sacred local culinary tradition. "This is my plan: I will get blind drunk and then I will kill these lobsters," she decides. Except, she looks at their wiry antennae and spotted backs and can't bring herself to kill them.

The more I read, the more I've come to realize how easily I'm hooked by the power and uniqueness of an author's voice, and this book has one of the strongest voices I've encountered in a long time. Even though Leah and the book's other narrator, Quinn, have their own distinct character voices, they are unmistakably (and brilliantly) created by the same person. And the rest of the book is as good as the opening, as the two women dig deeper into their relationships and enmesh themselves in the town's problems. Nothing is pat in this book, nothing is tidy; the protagonists make bad decisions, and decent people do bad things with good intentions. It's vibrant and wise and wonderfully real, and brings its salty setting vividly to life.

The weekend after CJ's book was released, some other sister-wives and I ended up throwing a slightly spastic virtual dinner party on Twitter in celebration, and I decided to make it into an actual meal. Except, when I actually thought about it, I couldn't kill lobsters, either. I readily admit to being an absolute hypocrite here, because it's not that I have an issue with the eating of lobsters--I will eat the crap out of a lobster that somebody else has already killed. Can't do it myself, though. Nope. They have eyes.

Clams, though, are another matter. Steamed clams, plus drawn butter and cold beer, happen to be one of my top five favorite summer meals, and while I know they're just as alive as lobsters when they get put in that pot, they're a hell of a lot less sentient. Allen and I first attempted a clam steam over Memorial Day, with fairly poor results--the clams took forever to cook, and since we didn't want to overcook them, we were pulling them out of the pot as they opened, three or four at a time. I decided to try it again, and, with the help of my friendly neighborhood seafood shop, Fish Tales, I can declare my solo clamfest to have been a rousing success. Here are the critical things to keep in mind:

my Summer of Summer clamfest

1. If you can, buy the clams from a local fish purveyor rather than a chain grocery store--they will be fresher and better quality. On our first attempt, out of the six dozen we bought from the grocery store, about 20% of them turned out to be dead. When I bought them from Fish Tales, every single one of the four dozen clams was alive.

2. But still, buy maybe a half-dozen more than you think you'll actually want to eat, just in case of casualties. Casualties include any clams with cracked shells, or any that simply never open after being cooked--those aren't safe to eat.

3. Do the cornmeal thing. When you're ready to eat your clams, one of the prep steps is to bathe them in cool water for 30-60 minutes, to prompt them to spit out any grit they have inside. I tried the suggestion I'd seen, of shaking a little cornmeal into the water to encourage the clams to spit, and it definitely seemed to work. Once they've sat for their assigned time, scrub the shells to make sure any last grit is gone, and then you're ready.

4. I prepared mine straight up--no wine or herbs in the broth, though there are plenty of recipes like that. The only flavor I added was to sautee a minced clove of garlic in the pan for a couple minutes before I put the liquid and clams in.

5. Put them all into a big steamer pot (I used my cast iron Dutch oven) with just a little bit of liquid at the bottom. I used about 3/4 of water for four dozen clams. They can all go in at once.

6. Cook them for longer than you think you need to. When we looked online, recipes were saying to cook them for 3-5 minutes... this is FALSE. The guys at Fish Tales told me ten minutes for my four dozen clams, and they were right on the money. We were used to steaming mussels, which literally only need about 2-3 minutes of cooking before they're ready, and which will quickly lose texture if they get overcooked. But clams have much thicker shells than mussels, so it takes longer for the heat to penetrate, and also their hold on their shells is stronger, so it takes more time for them to cook enough to release. Cause what happens, we learned on our first attempt, is if you start checking your clams after five minutes, you'll see a few ready, but the rest will need more time; and meanwhile you've just let a bunch of your hot steamy air out when you checked. Resist the urge to check. Let 'em steam.

7. Use salted butter to make the drawn butter. Recipes I saw said to use unsalted, but I far prefer the salty flavor, and it makes no difference in the mechanics of preparing the butter. (Boil it for a minute, let it cool undisturbed, and then skim off the solids without mixing them back into the clear melted butter beneath.)

8. Prepare copious lemon. I am a whore for lemon juice in all of its forms, and squeezing it over seafood is one of the most important forms. I don't like a delicate little spritz, I go to town. I got through 3/4 of a lemon all on my own with my clams.

So there you have it--possibly the world's first and only book review/clam steaming how-to. But in the Summer of Summer, these things go together.

And your tune for this post makes even less sense, unless you're my husband, his brother, or my sister-in-law. Paul Davis, " '65 Love Affair." Just substitute the word "clam" for "love" every time he says "65 love affair," and don't worry about it too much. It's summer. Enjoy your clams, everybody.