Although the autumnal equinox marking the official end of summer is still almost three weeks away, Labor Day serves as a sort of pre-farewell to what is by all odds my favorite season.
To celebrate it my favorite way, I skip the traditional picnics and cookouts, much as I love hot dogs, burgers, BBQ and fried chicken. Instead, I mark this holiday with a few cups of clam broth, the steamy, briny, translucent pearl gray bouillon that is the distillation of my childhood summers, from toddler stage through teens spent along the ocean-washed beaches of Brooklyn-by-the-Sea.
This esoteric brew and, of course, the soft-bellied, soft-shelled butter-dipped steamer clams that are the base for it, are special treats that, for me, mark summer right along with corn on the cob, tomatoes, peaches and watermelon. As seductive as the silky clam bellies are, it is the broth that best recalls my days of riding ocean breakers before stretching out on towels inviting the sun to do its damnedest as quickly as possible. Truly it is a miracle that I am not one huge mass of melanoma. But perhaps that broth is an antidote? (Don’t count on it.)
Although served in some restaurants, steamers for me are best enjoyed at home, preferably in open-air (whether on a fire escape or in a garden or, failing those, a big kitchen table) and with plenty of paper towels on hand to mitigate the slurping.
Considering the utter simplicity of the presentation, the preparation has its special demands, which mostly means the avoidance of sand. I allow between 24 and 30 clams per person (they are usually sold by weight or volume) and before buying, I look carefully to be sure all the clams are closed and not coated with muddy sand. Before being cooked—.i.e. steamed—each clam must be washed under running cold water as the shells are thoroughly brushed. I prefer to have them soak in ice water in the refrigerator for an additional hour or two to allow more sand to be washed out.
When they’re ready to cook, start with a Dutch oven or similar kettle with a film of unsalted water on the bottom and then add the clams. Brought to a boil and tightly covered, the steamers should be done and their shells open in about 7 minutes. Some too lazy to open quickly might be encouraged if the pot is shaken a bit but any that don’t open need to be discarded.
The clams should be scooped into one big serving bowl or portioned out into individual bowls. After the broth settles for a minute or two, ladled it into individual cups to become a dip for each clam. I liked to dip them a second time into a bath of hot melted butter that may be brightened with a squirt of lemon juice.
Clams all gone, one can have a rewarding quaff of the remaining broth not forgetting to toast the fading season while wishing for its quick return.