Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Aw shucks! I’m Un-Clammed Up.

2010 has been the summer of bivalves. In July I went clamming in the Hamptons, ate my fill, and still lugged ten pounds of sea-to-table Cherrystone Clams back to my tiny apartment fridge. It took me all night to shuck ‘em, but two days later I was back in brine at the new Mermaid Oyster Bar. I couldn’t get enough, so I made a return trip to the Island with Grandma last week to harvest some more.

I’m deeply indebted to friends with beach homes (!) who lured me out to the clam beds and showed me the ins and outs of how to use a rake. I won’t say I took to it like a natural, or even that the blinded work of slinging the rake through the slush in hip-high murky waters filled with boatloads of stinging jellyfish was fun. It wasn’t. It was work. But never before have I been so close to the source of my shellfish, and the experience was oh-so-worth the inevitable sunburned shoulders. These clams, and the occasional oyster, were seriously the best bivalves these lips have ever slurped. An ode to seasonal, local, real foods, if ever there was one!

Last June, at the start of the summer clamming season on Fire Island, I tried the “foot and toe method,” an easier approach that substitutes your hands and feet for a clam rake. So lazy was this method that I felt like I was beachcombing, rather than hunting for dinner. Needless to say, in my opinion, the chef’s best tool in the kitchen turns out to be just as effective digging and diving down into the Bay. And that’s not the only use I found for my suntanned hands!

I’ve dished clams up every which way these past few months: on Fire Island, grilled, in the Hamptons, iced on the half shell, and back in Manhattan, tossed with spaghetti for a garden fresh, herb and chili infused vongole. Each dish has been better than the last, and I’ll be disappointed when summer sings it’s final adieu this weekend, and I have no more clamming trips to look forward to. But then again, not all of the season’s pleasures will be ending; as the autumn winds come rolling in, I’ll be keeping my hands full with one of my most-prized Hamptons catches…

I’ve been mum on the subject until now, but a few months ago, I brought more back to Manhattan with me than a bucket of shells. On one of my clamming trips, I snagged not just a mollusk but a man, and we’ve been shucking together ever since. I won’t divulge too much, but suffice it to say that he’s handy with a clam knife, and knows his way around a boat as well. Not quite Paul Rudd in Diggers (he’s an urban son, after all), but savvy enough to keep me afloat. In the past few weeks we’ve been hitting all the best clam spots in town, and cooking our own as well. After all, what’s more romantic than seafood in summer?

This guy is also a cocktail master, and has shaken things up in more ways than one. From cobblers to cognac, he has a nose for liquor, and exquisite taste to match. For every clambake he has a tonic to pair, and on every date, he’s the perfect mixture of gentlemanly and drop-dead sexy. We’re keeping it low key for now, but I think we have a few more drinks and dishes ahead of us. Now that I’ve got him in my bucket, Mr. Mixologist is one catch I’m not ready to release at summer’s sunset.

We were hip-deep in the clam beds when we met, locking eyes over our empty rakes. A gentleman through and through, he offered me some of his haul at the end of the afternoon, when my catch failed to impress. I declined, but countered with an offer of my own – would he agree to combine our bounty in a blowout Hamptons barbecue?

A couple drinks and a few dozen clams later, Mr. Mixologist and I were hooked on each other. The rest of the trip was a whirlwind of boating, grilling, and of course, clamming, spiked with a heady summer romance. But now that the Hamptons season is winding down, Mr. Mixologist and I will have to find a new critter to celebrate. Since I’m already planning a Gumbo for the Gulf party, to support the Gulf Coast fisherman, how about shrimp? Though it remains unclear whether Gulf seafood is safe to eat, you can still do your part by donating to the relief efforts for affected families, and source shrimp you feel comfortable serving.

From clam tales to cocktails, this has been a summer worth celebrating – and slurping straight out of the shell. Aw shucks! I’m un-clammed up.

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