Steamed Manila Clams with Fennel and Bacon

I’m a relative newcomer to loving steamed clams and mussels. I used to only be able to eat clams when unrecognizable, such as in chowder or in pasta. Admittedly, what first drew me to eating steamed clams was more for the wonderful prospect of dunking crusty hunks of bread in the juices, swimming in garlic, wine and butter. Really– bread and butter will always be my downfall, my comfort food, so low carb diets can go do something rude to themselves.

But I soon came to appreciate eating the clams themselves, both for the clam meat and because it’s just such a good, sloppy, social event. Diving into a bowl with another or a group of friends, everyone’s whipped into a frenzy by the aroma from the steam that’s released when the lid is removed from the bowl, the slurping, the development of a silent competition as we each see the other’s empty shells stacking up.

A favorite, now sadly defunct, local restaurant turned me onto steaming clams with Pernod and pancetta. The licorice flavor from the liquor, the saltiness from the pork, and slightly toasted garlic slivers all combine into a heavenly broth. Those elements are reflected here, only since I’m too cheap to buy Pernod and too lazy to find someone who’ll cut thick, slab sized pieces of pancetta for me, I’ve made a couple of substitutions: thin slices of fennel and crispy pieces of bacon.

The result is a fast, simple, and dare I say, even kind of impressive looking meal. There’s something magical about how you can take these things that look like rocks (although that still doesn’t stop my strange, irrational fear that they’ll bite me as I’m cleaning them), stuff them in a pot with a little liquid, cover with a lid, and poof! In no time they’ve all popped open and all this lovely broth has filled the pot. I made these at John’s very good suggestion that this, a good salad (in this case, heads of little gem lettuce, split in half, topped with chopped scallion and shredded carrot, blue cheese yogurt dressing and dill), a loaf of bread, and a bottle of wine could be a great mid or late week dinner, since usually by that point in the week, we’re both too tired to cook. This may become a weekly staple– it’s just that great of a meal!

1.5 lbs Manila clams, scrubbed clean and hopefully still breathing.
4 slices thick, uncured bacon, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
1/2 sweet onion, thinly sliced in half moons
1 small fennel bulb, thinly sliced
2 cloves fresh garlic, thinly sliced
2 tsp olive oil
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 cup dry white wine (I usually look for a Semillon Blanc)
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 loaf ciabatta bread
olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled
fresh basil, chiffonade (optional)
salt and pepper

Rinse the clams under cold water, scrubbing the shells clean of sand or dirt (or if you’re an irrational freak like me who still fears the clams will bite you, ask someone else to do this for you.) Check for any that are open and that won’t close when you lightly tap them on your kitchen counter. Throw any of those out. Place clams in a bowl of water with a tbsp of flour or corn starch sprinkled over them. According to Ina Garten, the clams will eat the flour and disgorge any sand or grit. I’m not totally sure if it works, but I do admit that when I’ve done that, I’ve come across far fewer gritty clams than when I skip that step.

Preheat your oven to 375. Split the ciabatta loaf in half, lengthwise and bake for 10-15 minutes or until lightly toasted. Drizzle with olive oil and while the bread is hot, rub the garlic clove over the bread’s cut surface. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper and fresh basil. Stack the halves together again and cut into slices, then set aside.

In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Cook the bacon pieces until crispy then remove from the pot with a slotted spoon and let them drain on a paper towel. Add the onions, sliced fennel and garlic to the bacon fat in the pan and cook until onions and fennel are soft and translucent. Add the clams, thyme and the wine, then cover the pot and turn up the heat to medium high. Check on your little lovelies in 10 minutes. If some are still closed, make sure they’re submerged in the liquid, cover and cook for another couple of minutes. Check again and if any remain closed, toss ’em. Add the butter to the broth and stir until melted. Pour out all the pot’s contents into a big bowl, scatter the top with the bacon pieces, and let the slurping begin!

CSA Count: 1, sadly; 5 if you count the side salad
fennel, little gem lettuce, carrot, scallion, dill


2 thoughts on “Steamed Manila Clams with Fennel and Bacon

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