|I L L U S T R A T I O N|
My elementary school was shaped like a doughnut and located on top of a hill near the ocean. Most days were foggy. Once in a great while, the sun would break through and warm the asphalt in the yard, resulting in all of us young ‘uns running around waving our arms in vaporous clouds. When our clouds were finally gone, we could look out over the rest of the city and sometimes, it wouldn’t even be there — it was just fields of stratus clouds looking like new snow.
Do clams bet in tidal pools?
I made plans to visit my favorite fish market on a pier.
|In particular, I wanted to get some soft-shell clams (over there on the left is a picture from a previous trip). Soft-shell clams (Mya arenaria) are well-known on the East coast where they are a fixture in the invertebrate cuisine scene. I’d been drawing up detailed plans for cooking these soft-shell clams for a while and now, it was time to set things in motion.|
|But, the best laid schemes of mice and megalomaniacs often go awry.|
|For the first time since I have been going to this market (many, many years), they were out of soft-shell clams. Damn you, Murphy. *shakes fist at the sky* And damn your stupid law, too.|
So, now, I was standing in a crowded fish market (this place is really popular) and holding up the line (I had waited a long time so this didn’t bother me — it’s fun being dickish when you’ve got a choice parking spot you’re about to vacate, y’know?), while I looked around for another option. The fishmonger looked harried and tired, as did the rest of the staff who were constantly running back and forth to serve customers (the market also has a raw bar, crab/lobster steaming department, fried foods restaurant, bar, and pastries section). He was getting impatient, so I randomly pointed to a tub off to the side holding some greenish-brown clams and said, “How about those? What are those like?”
“Oh, those.” He got a faraway look in his eyes and gazed wistfully into the distance. “Those… They’re good. They’re really good.”
“What do they taste like?”
He smiled dreamily and closed his eyes a little, “They taste like — like the ocean.” He inhaled as if he was right at the ocean’s edge with his feet in the sand. “Like a big… clean… ocean.”
That was a hell of a testimonial.
And so, I went home with a little bag of Austrovenus stutchburyi, also known as “New Zealand cockles”.
|Ah, New Zealand.|
|From Wikipedia: Abel Tasman sighted New Zealand in 1642 and called it Staten Landt, supposing it was connected to a landmass of the same name at the southern tip of South America. In 1645 Dutch cartographers renamed the land Nova Zeelandia after the Dutch province of Zeeland. British explorer James Cook subsequently anglicised the name to New Zealand.|
|The Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed in New Zealand and that, I think, is when the world really found out how beautiful the country was. It’s a lush, green land with an amazing variety of flora and fauna, all of which are precious (and many are delicious).|
|Hey, look! It’s the Argonath! (This has fulfilled the federally mandated quota for LOTR references in a blog post.)|
We may now proceed to the warming of the cockles of your heart via the filling of your tummy with tastiness.
Miso Soup with Clams
This recipe makes a soup that is just loaded with scads of umami.
Umami, if you have not heard of it yet, is one of the five basic tastes together with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. It is a concept taken from Japanese cuisine and the best word to describe it is “savory”. It is not the same as “salty” as umami is more described as a “meaty” taste. The taste is due to the detection of glutamates by the tongue. The way food processors make use of this glutamate detection is to use glutamate salts — the very famous monosodium glutamate (MSG) — in foods. I say it very often, but here it is again: MSG is actually an acronym for Mmm So Good.
The pleasing taste sensation that is umami can be found naturally in many foods, including tomatoes, mushrooms, dashi, seaweed, fish, shellfish, cured meats (yay, bacon!), soy sauce, and cheese.
This recipe will use mushrooms, dashi, seaweed, and clams. I totally designed it to be a natural umami overload. Suck it, MSG.
Our unsuspecting New Zealand cockles resting in a glass custard bowl. I portioned out three clams per serving of soup for this recipe (this is very much on the low end of the Clam Saturation Scale), but you may have however many (or few) you like.
These cockles run about 1-1/2 inches and about 18 per pound. Scrub them under cold running water to make sure you clean off all the grit and sand that is on the outside of the shells. Rinse them well and let them contemplate their fate.
|Fresh shiitake mushrooms. They are super-duper umami-tastic.|
|Cut the stems off the mushrooms and slice the caps about 1/8″ thick. They’re prettier sliced but if you want to have more to chew, you can quarter them instead.|
|This is kombu seaweed, dried kelp that is often used in making broth. I should have used wakame, which is thinner and slightly sweet.|
|No helping it now, all I can do is forge ahead.|
|Random Wikipedia fact about wakame: Sea-farmers have grown wakame for hundreds of years … [I]t has been nominated as among 100 of the world’s worst invasive species.|
|I cut the kombu into smaller squares with kitchen scissors because I would never use embroidery scissors to do this if I couldn’t find my kitchen scissors. Never. Nope. Nuh-uh.|
|Soak the seaweed in cold water and set aside.|
|This is miso paste flavored with dashi. There are many types of miso paste. The darker the color, the stronger the flavor.|
|Slice some small cubes of soft tofu. You can use medium tofu if you like.|
|Sliced green onions for garnish.|
Bring 2-1/2 cups of water to a boil. Once it is boiling, drop in the clams. Cover and shake the pot gently to make sure the clams settle into one layer.
Cook for 3 minutes if you are cooking just six clams like me. Since you will probably be cooking more than six clams, you’ll want to cook them for 6 to 8 minutes.
You’ll see the clams begin to pop open. It’s really neat. Kind of like watching popcorn popping but without all the bloodcurdling screams of terror from the kernels.
Remove the opened clams with tongs and place them into bowls. If some clams are stubborn, let them boil for another minute or two. If they are not open past then, discard them as they may have been previously dead or filled with sand. You do not want to overcook clams as that will make them rubbery. If they are slightly undercooked, that is all right as the hot broth will cook them a little more later.
You now have a pot of clam broth. Deeelicious! (If you see grit at the bottom, strain the broth to remove the grit and then return it to the pot.) We will be using this broth instead of water to make the soup, thus ensuring complete umami-dom. Turn down the heat so the broth is at a simmer.
Miso paste is a concentrate used to make miso soup. The general ratio is one tablespoon of paste to one cup of water. I used two tablespoons of paste. Mix the paste and some of the hot clam broth in a separate bowl. If you dump the miso directly into hot water, it will clump up the same way cornstarch does.
|When the miso is dissolved, pour it slowly into the simmering clam broth while stirring.|
|Taste the soup. If it is too salty, add water. If it is not salty enough, mix up a little more paste and broth and add it again.|
|Don’t be too picky or you’ll keep adjusting until you have a bathtub full of soup.|
|Do not add salt. Miso paste is salty and clams are salty. You want to be delighted with the results, not dehydrated.|
|Add the seaweed (after draining it and squeezing out the excess water), mushroom slices, and tofu. Gently stir the soup. When it begins to simmer again, turn off the heat.|
You can serve the clams out of the shell or in the shell. In the shell makes for nicer presentation but out of the shell makes for easier eating (especially if you are using a lot of clams). If you are serving out of the shell, now is a good time to remove the cooked clams from their shells and divide them amongst your bowls (90% for you, 10% for everyone else).
I place three clams in a bowl and then ladle the hot soup (after giving it a stir to get the miso going) over them. Then, I sprinkle the green onions as a garnish.
This soup tastes as すばらしい as it looks.
The cockles did, indeed, taste like a big clean ocean. They had a wild, briny flavor that was bright and extremely delicious. If you decide to make this soup, keep in mind that the miso is already salty so if you use cockles instead of clams, you may need to dilute it with a little more water.
Although this soup is light, after eating it, you feel full and satisfied. Tastes great, less filling: beers may promise that, but this soup delivers it.
Most of my Cooking Classes are for two servings and are easily doubled.
Miso Soup with Clams
- 1/2 to 1 pound small hard-shelled clams (littlenecks, manila, etc.) or cockles of your choice
- 2 tablepoons miso paste
- 2-1/2 cups water
- fresh shiitake mushrooms
- wakame seaweed
- soft tofu
- sliced green onions for garnish