Sunday, June 8, 2014


Clams, almejas.

 So many kinds of clams. How to choose? Spin the wheel and see what comes up. I lucked out with coquinas. Tomorrow it’s cockles, then those big shiny ones. Luck of the draw—no razor shell clams today.

Five kinds of clams at today's market--clockwise from the left: Manila clams, often cultivated; big conchas finas, or smooth Venus shells; coquinas or wedge-shells; chirlas, a small Venus clam, very common in Andalusia; and berberechos, cockles, rounded and deeply ridged.

The biggest clams pictured are conchas finas, smooth Venus shells. They have glossy, mahogany-colored shells. Conchas finas figured in my early adventures at the village fish market, when I, a midwesterner bewildered by the variety of seafood, was still learning what was what. A lady fish vendor reached out and took my arm. “Señora, mire, las conchas buenas, finas.”  “Look at these fine clams!” I looked. Beautiful glossy shells. As I watched, feeling them, turning them over, the things began to move. Shells opened slowly, just a peek and a pink tongue oozed out.

I jerked my hand away, squealing, “But, they’re alive!” Well, of course they’re alive, she assured me. She smacked her lips to indicate how delicious. She didn’t say anything about slitting their necks, so I bought a few dozen.

At home I rinsed them off and left them by the sink while my guests and I sipped chilled white wine. We heard little clacking sounds, then, clank, clackety, clack. I ran to look and the lot of them had thrown themselves off the counter and were humping it across the kitchen floor. Back to the sea! Back to the sea! We’re outta here!

I gathered them up, put the water on to heat and threw them in. A few clacks and all was still. Shells opened silently.

Concha fina, opened raw.
They were not good. They were tough and rubbery, those big Venus-shell clams. I later took instruction at a tapa bar. These clams must be pried open and served raw on the half-shell with, perhaps, just a squeeze of lemon. You know they’re fresh when the drop of lemon causes them to shudder, just before you pop them into the mouth.

Buy live clams. How do you know they’re alive? The shells are tightly closed. Discard any that don’t close when tapped. Wash clams well in running water. Even “farmed” clams are likely to be sandy. Put them in a bowl of salt water to soak and disgorge sand, a few hours on the table. Lift them out of the water, rinse again and they’re ready to cook.

If you need to keep the clams, wrap them in a bowl covered with a wet towel and refrigerate. Don’t store clams in plastic bags. Better yet, steam them open immediately, and refrigerate, covered, with the strained broth poured over them.

Clams, Fishermen’s Style
Almejas a la Marinera

Almejas a la marinera--clams, fishermen's style, with garlic, wine, parsley.

This clam dish is a tapa bar favorite. While tapas are usually served individually, this one is perfect as a shared plate. Everybody helps himself from the communal platter and dunks pieces of bread into the delicious, garlicky juice. Use littlenecks, Manila clams, tiny coquinas, wedge-shells. Not everybody adds flour to this dish. The flour thickens the liquid, so you can make lots of the sauce. Be sure to serve with lots of bread for sopping it up!

Makes 8 tapas or 3-4 starters.
Same recipe, with coquinas.

2 pounds clams
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped onion
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon flour
½ cup dry white wine or dry Sherry
½ cup water
Red pepper flakes (optional)
½ teaspoon pimentón (paprika), optional
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Wash the clams in running water. Discard any shells that are opened or cracked.

In a deep skillet heat the oil and sauté the onion and garlic until onion is softened. Stir in the flour, then add the clams. On a high heat, add the wine, water, pepper flakes and pimentón, if using, and bay leaf. Cover the skillet and shake the pan until the clam shells open. This takes 3 to 10 minutes, depending on the type of clam.

Remove from heat when most of the shells have opened. Discard any that do not open. Pour the clams into a serving dish and top with chopped parsley. Serve with chunks of bread.

These are razor clams, called navajas--pen knives--in Spanish. They can be prepared as in the above recipe for almejas a la marinera, or opened on a plancha or even on a charcoal grill, then drizzled with best olive oil, chopped garlic and parsley.
 Clams  with Beans
Almejas con Faves

Clams and beans, a spin on Asturian fabada.

This is a version of Asturian fabada, typically made with faves, extra-large kidney beans. Rather than slow-cook the beans, I have used a jar of small white lima beans. The clams are steamed open, then added to the beans, with or without shells. Personally, I love the look of clam shells in the bowl and I don’t mind getting fingers messy to fish them out. Clams and clam liquid are quite salty, so taste the beans before adding additional salt.

Serves 4 as a starter.

1 pound Manila or littleneck clams
½ cup water
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs
Pinch of saffron or pimentón
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 ounce sausage, such as chistorra or chorizo, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped onion
20-ounce can or jar of white beans
1 bay leaf
Sprig of fresh thyme
Salt and pepper, to taste

Scrub the clams and put them in a pan with the water. Cover and steam them open over a high heat, shaking the pan until the clam shells open. Remove from heat. Strain the liquid and reserve it. If preferred, shell the clams, discarding the shells.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a small skillet. Add the garlic and breadcrumbs and sauté until crumbs are golden. Add the saffron or pimentón. Remove from heat and add the chopped parsley. Set aside.

Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in a cazuela or pan. Add the sausage and onion and fry for a few minutes. Add the beans, along with their liquid and ½ cup of liquid from the clams.  Add the bay leaf, thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer the beans 10 minutes.

Immediately before serving, stir in the reserved breadcrumb-parsley mixture.

Arroz con Almejas
Rice with Clams

A simplified paella--savory rice cooks with clams and vegetables.

 Some paellas are truly baroque extravaganzas, with a sumptuous assortment of everthing from sea, land and sky. Others, such as this dish of rice with clams, show an almost Zen-like simplicity.  “Un arroz”—“a rice”—is the name for such a rice dish. Often, 'un arroz' is any rice dish cooked by a housewife in the kitchen, whereas, 'una paella' is a grand event, cooked outdoors by guys. 'Un arroz' may be served as primer plato—first course—and followed by a meat, chicken or fish dish. It can be seco, dry, like paella; meloso, creamy-juicy, somewhat like risotto, or caldoso, soupy.

I used berberechos, cockles, in this rice dish. They are cooked with the rice, providing a lot of flavor, so it’s not necessary to make a stock.  Use medium grain round rice for this dish (arborio is a substitute for authentic Valencian paella rice). If saffron is not available, substitute pimentón (sweet paprika, not smoked). A simple rice like this can be served with a dollop of alioli, garlic-oil or garlic mayonnaise.

Serves 6 as a starter.

Cockles flavor the rice.
1 pound cockles or other medium-sized clam
¼ teaspoon saffron
¼ cup boiling water
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup chopped green pepper
1/3 cup chopped onions
1 clove garlic, chopped
½ cup chopped tomatoes
1 cup cut-up asparagus
1 cup rice
½ teaspoon salt
2 ½ cups hot water
1/3 cup frozen peas, thawed

Alioli to serve, if desired

Wash the cockles or clams and leave them in a bowl of salt water to rid them of sand.

Crush the saffron and place it in a small bowl. Pour over the boiling water. Allow to steep for at least 10 minutes.

Heat the oil in a small (12-inch) paella pan or skillet. Sauté the green pepper, onions and garlic until softened. Add the tomatoes and asparagus and cook 4 minutes. Stir in the rice and let it cook with the sofrito for a few minutes. Add the salt, saffron water and hot water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat somewhat and cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes.

Add the drained clams to the rice, stirring to distribute them evenly. Continue cooking until rice is nearly done al dente, about 8 minutes more. Sprinkle the peas on top. Remove the rice from the heat and allow to settle 5 minutes before serving. 

This rice dish makes a good starter.


  1. I adore those little coquinas in soup!

    1. Christine: Me too. I love Spanish seafood soups with clams of any sort, clacking in the bowl with their shells.