The tidal flats of the central coast of Maine zigzag for miles along fingers that reach inland from the ocean. Tony and I crisscrossed them again and again in our search for the rocky shore. I would lick my lips in hunger.
“That’s clam territory,” I told Tony atop one bridge. “Keep an eye out for signs.”
Sure enough, on yet another ill-fated attempt to beat the hordes of tourists to the actual shore, I spotted culinary gold: A hand-pained sign, “Clams, Seafood” with an arrow.
We turned off State Route 209 near Phippsburgh onto a narrow, rutted road. Around a bend was a small pre-fab building with a cement loading dock and a sign, “Clam Hunter Seafood.”
“Come on up,” called the smiling woman on the dock. She led us inside, where wire shelves and water-filled tubs were crammed with clams and oysters. Lobsters bubbled in a glass tank filled with sea water. A man — her husband? — with a wind-burned face and rolled-down waders directed a spray of water at shell debris on the concrete floor. Yes, he had just dredged up the clams, he said.
The clams had already been purged, we were told. That meant I wouldn’t have to soak them in salt water until they released any sand they harbored. Already-purged clams were a real find.
Soft-shells, called steamers here, were $6 a pound. Lobsters were $7 a pound. I almost cried when I realized I couldn’t fit three pounds of clams AND lobsters in the little cooler I had brought.
I only needed a pound of clams for the recipe I had in mind, but I knew I could eat more than a dozen myself, the average number of steamers in a pound. I bought three pounds and doubled the sauce recipe.
I have had some fine clams in Maine so far. My first meal was a lobster roll and a dozen steamers with clam broth and drawn butter. They tasted like the sea and reminded me of my early 20s, when I lived in Atlantic City and was in love with life and my first taste of seafood. My second restaurant meal was an indecently big pile of fried seafood including clams fresh from the shell, dunked in batter and fried until crisp and golden. They were so sweet and crisp I’ll be dreaming of them the rest of my life.
Then there were my clams. Back at my camper, I made a soffritto of crisp-fried pancetta, softened onion and minced fennel. I cut thick slices of crusty bread, fried them in olive oil and rubbed them with garlic. I bubbled those sea-fresh clams with wine, lemon peel, a bay leaf and the sofrito. When the flavors were blended and the clams had opened, I ladled everything over the thick slices of toast on a platter.
A half-dozen clams and the broth-soaked toast turned out to be plenty for me but not nearly enough for Tony, who ate almost all of them. The clams on toast was so good Tony suggested selling it along the roadside to other tourists stuck in traffic, trying to find the shore. He thinks we could make a fortune.
A word of warning: The Maine coast, like many popular destinations, suffers from over tourism. If you want to see a tide pool or a rocky headland or an ocean wave, get up before dawn. We were stuck in traffic for hours on U.S.1 one day, and were turned away a half-mile from Popham Beach State Park another day because all of the parking lots were full by noon.
But there are still clams, lobsters and oysters to be had on byways far from the madding crowds.
CLAM TOASTS WITH PANCETTA
(From Bon Appetit magazine)
4 tbsp. olive oil
2 oz. pancetta, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, 2 sliced thin, 2 whole
1/2 medium sweet onion, finely chopped
1/2 small fennel bulb, finely chopped, plus 1/4 cup fennel fronds
2 wide strips (3 inches long) lemon zest
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. ground fennel
1 cup dry white wine, divided
Pinch of salt
2 thick (1 1/2 inch) slices sourdough bread
1 lb. clams (steamers or littleneck)
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Crushed red pepper flakes
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium. Add pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until brown and crisp. Add sliced garlic and stir-fry until it is golden around the edges, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium-low and add onion and chopped fennel. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent.
Add lemon zest, bay leaf, ground fennel, ½ cup wine and a pinch of salt. Increase heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until wine is mostly reduced but mixture is still a little bit saucy. Transfer soffritto to a medium bowl; discard lemon zest and bay leaf. Wipe out skillet.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in same skillet over medium. Cook bread slices in skillet until golden brown on both sides. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Cut 1 garlic clove in half and rub one side of each toast with cut side of garlic. Wipe out skillet.
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in same skillet over medium. Crush remaining garlic clove with the side of a chef’s knife and cook, stirring often, until it begins to turn golden, about 1 minute. Add clams, soffritto, and remaining ½ cup wine. Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Cook, uncovered, until liquid is reduced by half and clams are open (discard any that do not open), 5 to 7 minutes. Add parsley and chopped fennel fronds and cook 1 minute longer.
To serve, place a piece of fried bread on each of two plates and spoon clam mixture and broth over. Sprinkle with red pepper flakes. Makes 2 appetizer or light lunch servings.
Note: Soffritto can be made 2 days ahead. Cool, cover and chill.
What I prepared last week:
Crudités and a campfire hotdog with mustard and onions; a scrambled duck egg sandwich and coffee; grilled strip steaks and microwaved corn on the cob; salade Nicoise and a ripe peach; clam toast with pancetta.
What I at in/from restaurants:
Buffalo wings from Bella Pizza in Lackawanna, N.Y.; a cheese omelet, whole wheat toast and coffee at Cherry Tree Inn in Henderson, N.Y.; half of a Subway ham and cheese; a brick oven pizza with garlic sauce, chicken, feta, dried cranberries and walnuts and a Stella Artois; fried fish, french fries, coleslaw, mac and cheese and a roll from Ghize’s Tavern in Ogdensburg, N.Y.; stuffed cabbage and potato moussaka from a farmers’ market in St. Albans, Vt.; a lobster roll (the meat of an entire lobster in a toasted split-top bun with melted butter on the side), homemade thick-cut potato chips, steamed clams at Lobster in the Rough in York, Maine; fried scallops, clams, haddock and shrimp with french fries and a roll at Sea Basket Restaurant in Wiscasset, Maine.
From Bill B.:
Regarding the caramelized onions in your corn salad, do you ever microwave stem the chopped onions to cut cooking time when caramelizing them I do this when I’m making huge batches of onions. This usually cuts down on the amount of butter I need to use as well.
Brilliant. Next time, instead of cutting down on butter to save calories but then not quite caramelizing the onions so they don’t burn, I will try your trick. Thanks.