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Hot Steamers: A New England Favorite
(and a great way to start a meal)
by Charlie Burke

Steamed soft shell clams or “steamers” are a New England tradition, especially in
the summer. Their appearance is certainly intimidating to the uninitiated, but the
taste of the sea they bring explains why so many natives laboriously rake clams.

Fortunately for those of us who do not live near clam beds or who want to avoid
this back breaking task, New England fish markets have soft shelled clams most of
the year. This is casual fare, best served with many napkins or paper towels, and
beer is the beverage of choice. Clams make the best first course before steamed or
boiled lobster and are a great start to a barbeque.

Freshly raked clams contain shell debris and sand, so proper cleaning is essential.
I use a coarse frying basket initially, shaking the clams under running water to get
rid of surface sand and shell flakes. They should be soaked in a large volume of
salted water, stirred in the water and drained. This should be repeated until little
sand is seen in the water. If you order a day ahead, ask the fish monger to place
them in the lobster tank overnight; they will then be clean and ready to cook the
following day.

The classic preparation is simply bringing an inch of water to a boil in a large pot
and then to steam them until they are open, approximately seven to ten minutes.
The broth is strained and served in cups with melted butter along side. The clam
is removed from its shell, the black skin pulled off the neck, and then the clam is
dipped first into the broth and then the butter. Some sip the broth which is
intensely flavored.

I personally prefer to steam them the way mussels are done in Belgium: using
beer instead of water, and adding the aromatic flavors of onion, garlic and celery.
The broth is still true to the traditional flavor, but is more complex and blends
perfectly with the clams. I use a local beer, such as Sam Adams Summer Ale or,
most recently, Tuckerman Brewing Company’s Pale Ale. I buy at least one pound
of clams per person, more for large appetites.

For Four:

4 pounds soft shell clams
1 stick butter
Lemon juice (optional)

1 bottle (12 ounces) beer
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
1 stalk celery, sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 Turkish bay leaf
1 teaspoon pepper corns

In a large pot bring beer and all following ingredients to a boil over high heat.
Add clams, cover and steam for 8 minutes. If all the clams are not open, continue
cooking, checking every minute or so. While clams are cooking, melt butter,
adding a tablespoon of lemon juice, if using, and divide among small bowls.
When the clams are done, serve them immediately in individual bowls. Strain the
broth through a strainer lined with paper towels and serve it in individual cups.

About the author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the
vice president of the New Hampshire Farmer’s Market Association
( and helps run the Sanbornton Farmers' Market. Along with his
wife, Joanne, he grows certified organic herbs, greens and berries at Weather Hill
Farm in Sanbornton, NH.  
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