The Underappreciated Atlantic Surf Clam

Every summer at clam shacks in New England, the classic debate rises: fried clam strips or fried clam bellies? In my opinion, the two should not be compared. These sweet and salty fried treats are not even products from the same clam. The popular option is to use whole bellies, which come from the Eastern shores and are known as steamers, soft-shells, or piss clams. The less popular option, strips, are cut from a larger hard shell clam, the Atlantic surf clam. Both are an amazing sea treat, but I think the surf clam deserves some more attention.

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The Atlantic Surf Clam (Spisula solidissima) is a large, hard shell clam that is found in large numbers along the coast of the Northeast and primarily harvested in New England. They are triangle-shaped measuring on average six inches across at the time of optimal harvest. Their weight at this size is about two pounds making them one of the largest clams we eat. Most of these landings occur in the Nantucket Shoals where annual quotas remain around 3 million pounds. These landings are primarily used for processed products with very little sold as live product to the end consumer. Processed products include clam juice, clam strips, minced clams, and the belly (viscera) used for bait or industrial use.

 
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How surf clams are processed

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The first step in the production process is to remove the meat from the shell by hand. Lines of workers remove the meat by using short, blunt knives and make quick work of the difficult process. The juice released in this process is strained, packed, and frozen for use as a base in sauces and soups. Next, the meat is rinsed of any sand or grit, and a quick burst of heat removes any membranes or connective tissues that are not fit for consumption. The majority of the viscera, or belly, is removed and discarded, or saved for bait. The siphon, the mantle (or strap), the two adductors, and the foot are chopped and sold as minced clams. These pieces are usually about the size of a dime and stored back in their own juice in plastic containers. This product is used as a base for soups and chowders as well as an ingredient in items like stuffed clams and croquettes. The foot, if not used for minced, will be cut lengthwise and sold as the clam strip.

The emergence of the clam strip

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The clam strip is a relatively new way to use the surf clam. It was created for a business in the 1950s: Howard Johnson’s Restaurant. The famous orange and turquoise roadside respite was well known for their ice cream and quick and eat food, but the one thing they had people clamoring for was their fried clam plate. During that time, soft shell clams were increasingly scarce and the demand for fried clams was high. The restaurant’s source for clams was a company by the name of Saffron Brothers, a family business that started in the early 1940s by digging soft shell clams in Ipswich, MA. Not wanting to lose the business, the Saffron Brothers came up with the idea of using a clam that was readily available and less expensive to harvest. The brothers armed boats with hydraulic dredges, pulling up the large clams in droves. They processed them and sent them to the restaurant and were received with open arms. A new product was born and a New England staple emerged: Howard Johnson’s Tendersweet Clams. Soon, establishments up and down the Eastern Seaboard were using and frying the strips, hoping to capitalize off the acclaim. Since then, it has remained a staple in New England and enjoyed by many throughout the year.

Uses in fine dining

Photo Courtesy of Chef Brian Young of The Emory

Photo Courtesy of Chef Brian Young of The Emory

Surf clams can also be found on high-end sushi menus, commonly known as Giant Clam (Hokkigai). Often, the foot will be steamed, sliced lengthwise, and served on rice as nigiri. The tip of the foot will turn a bright pink or red, making it a standout among the tuna and salmon. Another way this clam can be used is in a raw preparation by using more than just the foot. By separating the parts of the clam normally used for minced clams, careful slicing can turn them into a high-end dish. The texture and flavor profile are similar to geoduck, yet mild and versatile enough for a large number of applications. Chef Brian Young of The Emory in Boston uses surf clams as a vessel for delicate and high-end ingredients. He thinks that all of the extra work to clean them is well worth it. On the right, you can see a dish that he created for a dinner at the James Beard house this past winter. The surf clam is sliced thinly and served raw with cultured cream, caviar, mizuna, and potato chips dusted with dried Italian truffles. This surf clam dish is certainly a whole other world from a fried clam basket or Striped Bass bait.

Curious about how to use these clams in your kitchen? Here’s a quick video on how to break them down and a recipe for a quick and easy dish inspired by spring.

#eatmoreclams

*As this piece was in production, an ordinance was put in place on April 9th, closing Nantucket Shoals for surf clam harvest until further notice. Since this is the largest area of harvest in the Northeast, it is hard to say exactly how the industry will change, but we are waiting on more updated information. Stay with us as we navigate this closure and find out more on the future of the East’s most underappreciated clam.

Recipe: Raw Surf Clam with Blueberries, Asparagus, and Avocado

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Serves 4

2 live large surf clams, sliced and cleaned (save the shells)
¼ c sliced blueberries
¼ cup sliced asparagus, blanched
Sliced radish
Fried shallots
Large flake sea salt

Dressing
1 small avocado, diced
2 T Honey
1 lemon, juiced
¼ c chopped cilantro
Olive Oil
Salt

To make the dressing, place half of the avocado, honey, lemon juice, parsley and a pinch of salt into a blender and puree until smooth. If the mixture is not blending, add water until it is smooth and the consistency of yogurt. If the mixture is too loose or watery, blend in more avocado. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil until it is mixed completely. Set aside.

Arrange the clam pieces in each shell. Arrange the blueberries, asparagus, and radish on top of the clams. Drizzle with the dressing and finish with dried shallots and salt to taste.

Winter Effects On Oyster Quality

From February to April, we tend to see quality issues on certain varieties of oysters. It’s something that happens each year, so we put together this FAQ to help address your winter concerns.

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What are oysters doing during winter?

When we’re asked to think of animals that hibernate, bears, bats and other small mammals usually come to mind. But did you know, oysters also “hibernate” during the winter? Contrary to children’s books and fairy tales, animals in hibernation are not sleeping. Hibernation is a form of dormancy in which animals conserve energy to survive harsh environmental conditions. Oysters go dormant during winter because water temperatures can stay below freezing for months. Evolution has also taught them that there is no food in the water when everything is iced over.

How do oysters survive their winter dormancy?

To prepare for winter dormancy, oysters feed like crazy during the fall to build up glycogen, their sugar stores — which is why they are so sweet in autumn. When the water temperatures drop to 40° F, it signals the oyster to stop metabolizing and go dormant. The oyster will barely pump during this time and survive on its glycogen to get through the winter. When the waters warm up and food is back in the water, the oysters will become active again and start feeding. They will pump, filter, and eat from spring to fall until water temperatures drop again, triggering another cycle of dormancy.

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What is winter kill?

Inevitably, there are oysters that will die during winter dormancy. This phenomenon is called winter kill. Oysters run out of glycogen to stay alive or they are too weak to withstand the harsh conditions. The worst part is, some of these oysters die remaining shut. This makes them difficult to detect even when harvesters go through them by hand.

What are some signs of winter kill?

Because some oysters die shut, they cannot be detected until they are shaken up or shucked open to reveal dry, shriveled, smelly meats. Dormant oysters are weaker and have difficulty healing themselves, so any chipping during harvest, culling, packing, or transit can lead to liquor loss.

Once we hit late February and into March, we are basically asking the oysters to do the most impossible journey possible. Out of the water, through the packing house and shipped across the [Canadian] border by refrigerated truck. If at any point in that journey, the oyster [attempts] to feed or gets jostled in a harsh manner that loosens the abductor muscle, the oyster will spill some of its precious liquor and there’s no opportunity to replace the liquor… The oyster will not likely open again until spring when he’s either bone dry from survival or is sufficiently convinced that the water temperatures are steady again.
— Jacob Dockendorff, PEI Producer

Why does winter kill affect certain varieties more than others?

If you are a Pangea Shellfish customer, you will notice that certain oyster varieties are unavailable from March to May like wild-harvested Malpeques. These are the months when winter kill is most apparent, and Canadian supply is a great example.

Canadian waters get colder earlier in the year than locations down south. This also means the oysters enter dormancy earlier than its southern brethren. If a Canadian oyster enters dormancy in early November, it may not start feeding again until May when waters warm. It basically needs to survive on its glycogen that whole time! It’s impossible to ask the oysters to be in tip-top shape from March through May when they have not eaten for six to seven months.

You will also see signs of winter kill in New England oysters as we approach March, but it’s not as noticeable because their dormancy period is shorter. New England oysters are likely feeding until the end of November and start feeding again in late March. They have to survive about four months compared to the six months Canadian oysters endure.

Average Water temperatures in Summerside, PEI.  Water temps drop to 40F by early november and do not warm back up until late May. Oysters are dormant that entire period.  Source: NOAA

Average Water temperatures in Summerside, PEI. Water temps drop to 40F by early november and do not warm back up until late May. Oysters are dormant that entire period. Source: NOAA

Average Water temperatures in Barnstable, MA.  New England water temps do not drop to 40F until late November / December, which allows the oysters to feed longer and remain in dormancy for a shorter amount of time compared to Canadian oysters.  Source: NOAA

Average Water temperatures in Barnstable, MA. New England water temps do not drop to 40F until late November / December, which allows the oysters to feed longer and remain in dormancy for a shorter amount of time compared to Canadian oysters. Source: NOAA

Which varieties are less susceptible to winter kill?

Winter kill is less of an issue for southern varieties because of warmer water conditions, but generally, farmed oysters have a better chance of survival than wild oysters. Growers make sure their oysters have the best access to food throughout the year and condition them to have stronger abductor muscles. Farms also have different wintering and culling methods to tackle winter kill and limit its effects on product quality. So, despite Canadian oysters being more susceptible, many of the cultured Canadian varieties look nice throughout the season.

When will quality improve?

When the oysters finally start pumping and feeding again, it will take a couple of weeks for their quality to improve as they replenish themselves. Timing will vary by area because water temperatures differ by location, but we will see most varieties in better shape by late May.

Is there anything I can do to limit the effects of winter kill?

Yes! Be gentle. The oysters are weak, so any tough handling will result in dry or dead oysters. Give them extra attention and protection, especially in transit.

If you encounter a smelly bag, make sure to go through the bag or box because it could just be one dead oyster responsible for the smell. Discard the dead and rinse the rest. The remaining live oysters are just fine!

If there are any issues, contact your supplier. Dead oysters can go unnoticed until shucked, so giving your supplier feedback can help them assess the situation.

Duxbury Bay, January 2019, Mike Cesarini.

Duxbury Bay, January 2019, Mike Cesarini.

Special thanks to our Canadian producers for contributing to this piece.

Have a winter quality question not listed here? Ask it in the comments section below.

Recipe: Bonita Apple-bomb

Do I love you?
Do I lust for you?
Am I a sinner because I do the two?
Could you let me know
Right now, please
Bonita Applebum

Since the first day we received this oyster, I knew we needed to make some sort of tribute to A Tribe Called Quest. These oysters appeared on our Blackboard List and I immediately fell in love with the large pillow-like meats and the full, deep cups. This recipe is simple, flavorful, and in command - just ready to put you on.

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Serves 2
6 Bonita Oysters
1/4c tart apple, diced finely
1/4c white balsamic vinegar
Lime zest cut in to thin strips
Coarse black pepper
Honey to taste
 

Combine all ingredients and allow them to sit for an hour before serving. Top Bonita oysters with the mignonette, but just a little goes a long way. If Bonita oysters are not available, use the mignonette with another bold and large Pacific oyster.

#eatmoreoysters

From Bycatch to Center of the Plate: Jonah Crab

Crabs live all over the world, and the number of crab species in existence reaches about 4500. Those that are edible have strong followings all over the world such as the Stone Crab, Dungeness Crab, King Crab, and Blue Crab. Here in New England, we focus on the Jonah Crab which is medium-sized and contains some of the sweetest meat around.

The Jonah Crab's habitat stretches from the icy waters of Northeastern Canada all the way down to the Carolinas.  The majority of its landings are in Prince Edward Island, Maine, and Rhode Island. In the past, these crabs were discarded as a by-catch of lobstering. Once the demand for the crabs increased, a devoted fishery was created. The harvesters began to catch the crabs in increased numbers using baited pots as they did in fishing lobsters.

The crabs follow a similar seasonality to lobster: they are at their best in the colder months. The colder water concentrates the natural sugars in the meat to give you a sweet and succulent bite. Its flavor is sweet like Pacific Dungeness crab with the firm yet delicate texture of the Florida Stone Crab. What is special about the Jonah is that the meat can be displayed and processed in many ways. Here are some popular products that are available both fresh and frozen:

Cap Off claws

Cap Off claws

Cocktail Claws:

These ready to eat morsels are comprised of just the claw with the ‘cap’ or base of the claw removed. The top of the claw, where the pincers are, is kept on to maintain the structure of the meat. These are most commonly served on their own with cocktail sauce or an aioli.

Empress Claws:

Like the cap off claws but more of the shell is removed leaving just one pincer on for an elegant display. These are often served on their own or even as a part of an impressive shellfish tower.

Triple score claws

Triple score claws

Triple Score Claws:

These include the whole arm with slits scored into the shell for you pop them open yourself. Some of the best meat is in those arm sections! These are served their own, or can be used as toppers to large bowls of shellfish stew.

All Leg Meat

All Leg Meat

All Leg Meat:

This is exactly what it sounds like, meat from the legs of the crab. This is picked from the shell by way of meticulous hand picking or via air hoses that force the meat out. This is the best option for elegant garnishes or as additions to pastas.

Combo Meat: 60% body meat and 40% leg meat.

The meat that comes from the body in smaller pieces and is either picked by hand or processed by machine which is mixed with large chunks from the legs. This is perfect for fillings and crab cakes.


Crab muscle structure is not that different than human muscles

Crab muscle structure is not that different than human muscles

Fresh vs. Frozen

Since both fresh and frozen crab are available on the market, what is the difference between the two? First, we need to go into what happens to the meat (apart from the shell) during the freezing process. Crab muscle structure is a lot like ours with bands of filaments held together by proteins. These proteins allow the muscle to move by sliding over one another powered by the enzymes actin and myosin. Think of actin and myosin as lubricants that help the muscle filaments slide over each other. When muscles freeze, they will expand, pulling apart the filaments and denaturing the actin first and then the myosin. When the meat thaws, the muscle will contract again, but the denatured enzymes will leak out of the muscle fibers as they are not able to adhere to anything. Without the aid of the enzymes, the meat will appear to be drier thawed versus frozen.

Crab in the shell is frozen with the aid of a glaze, which is a layer of ultra-cooled water that freezes on contact. This protects the meat and allows the crab to thaw quickly and evenly. Crab out of the shell is frozen in small batches in their own containers. Thawing should take place slowly in a fridge overnight. If the thawing process is rushed, the crab can lose more moisture creating an almost rubbery texture. There will still be some moisture loss, but not as much if the crab was not glazed.

An untrained eye may not be able to detect much of a change as this reaction is slight and the muscle fibers of the crab are not as compact as other animals (shown side-by-side below). To the connoisseur, frozen is a different game than fresh, but both have a prominent place in crab-loving dishes.

Fresh (l) and tHAWED (r)

Fresh (l) and tHAWED (r)

For fresh crab, it is best used in cold applications and areas where the crab will be served as the highlight of the dish. Being able to bite into a large, sweet, moist chunk of crab is a delight and it should be the freshest and brightest texture of all. Some examples of classic uses include Crab Louis salad, with fresh pasta, or as a garnish to a crab bisque.

For frozen, it is best used in fillings, cakes, and other hot preparations. The addition of other ingredients will help some of the meat’s natural sweetness come through, and the meat’s drier texture will help in the binding process (just make sure it is well drained first!). As for fresh or frozen claws, both can be consumed in the same way without much of a difference in taste, but the fresh will be sweeter. The advantage of using frozen is that you can depend on a long shelf life and have them at the ready. Just make sure you give them the time they need to thaw properly.

Looking to branch out into crab? Call us for products available and our ordering schedule.

#eatmorecrab

Recipe: Meyer Lemon and Black Pepper Cavatelli with Crab and Winter Vegetables

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Serves 2-4

I debated putting this recipe out there as my cavatelli recipe is not usually measured, but rather made by the feel of the dough. If you do not want to dive into making your own, you can find cavatelli shaped pasta in the refrigerated section if your grocery store or in boxes with the rest of the dried pasta. This recipe also uses raw winter vegetables to give it a fresh crunch that I miss in the colder months.

For the cavatelli:

6 oz fresh ricotta cheese (do not drain off any excess liquid)
1 egg plus one yolk
‘00’ flour (use All Purpose Flour if ‘00’ is not available)
Black pepper, freshly ground
2 Meyer lemons, zested and separated

4oz All Leg Jonah Crabmeat
1 large golden beet, sliced paper thin (raw)
½ c purple cauliflower, cut into small crowns (raw)

In a mixer, whip the ricotta until it is light and fluffy. Using the dough hook, mix in the eggs, half the zest, and about 1t if black pepper. Slowly add in flour until everything is combined and the dough does not stick to the sides of the mixing bowl. The dough should spring back when poked. If this does not happen, mix with the dough hook for another few minutes. Cover the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead for a few turns. With a rolling pin, flatten the dough until it is about ¼ in thick. Cut the dough into ½ in wide strips and feed through a cavatelli press. If you do not have a cavatelli press, chop the strips into small rectangles and roll off the back of a for to achieve a similar aesthetic.

Boil the pasta in lightly salted water until the individual pieces float. Once all pieces are floating, strain and place into two heated bowls, garnish with the rest of the zest, the vegetables, crab, and a healthy dose of olive oil and black pepper.

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Recipe: Kale Salad with Jonah Crab and Avocado Dressing

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Just because it is winter does not mean we can’t have things that are fresh and green. This hearty salad features the Cara Cara and Blood oranges, two very sweet and unique types of citrus that keep things hot in the colder months.

Serves 2

3 oz Jonah all leg crabmeat
¼ # cippolini onions
1 package baby kale, washed
1/2 cup raw shaved fennel
2 blood oranges, segmented
1 Cara Cara orange, segmented
4T pine nuts, toasted

Dressing:

1 small avocado, diced
2 T Honey
1 lemon, juiced
¼ c chopped parsley
Olive Oil
Salt

Coat the cippolini onions in olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast the onions in a 375 F oven until caramelized. Set aside and allow to cool.

To make the dressing, place half of the avocado, honey, lemon juice, parsley and a pinch of salt into a blender and puree until smooth. If the mixture is not blending, add water until it is smooth and the consistency of yogurt. If the mixture is too loose or watery, blend in more avocado. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil until it is mixed completely. Set aside.

Arrange the kale, orange segments, fennel and onions on two plates. Garnish with the pine nuts and serve the dressing on the side. If you did not use all of the avocado in the dressing, add that to the plates as well.

Recipe: Miso Crab Udon

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The finger limes in this recipe are a real specialty item and can be hard to find. If they are not available anywhere near you, use segments from a small lime. Just a little bit goes a long way as you do not want to combat the robust miso and the delicate crab.

Serves 2

4 oz Jonah all leg meat
3t HonDashi
2T Miso paste (shiro)
2 servings Udon noodles – cooked (follow package instructions)

For Garnish:
Shaved baby bella mushrooms
Sliced scallions
Radish sprouts
Sliced red Fresno peppers (optional)
2 finger limes, cleaned

In a small saucepot, bring 3 cups of water to simmer. Whisk in the hondashi and let it simmer for one minute to dissolve. Whisk in the miso paste until it is dissolved and set aside, keeping it warm.

Put one serving of udon each in two warmed bowls. Arrange on the top of the noodles the mushrooms, scallions and sprouts (and fresno peppers if you like it spicy).

Serve the bowls, pouring the broth over the garnishes. Finish with finger lime arils (caviar-like pods of the lime).

Recipe: Crab Rangoon That Doesn't Suck

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Crab Rangoon is always the guilty pleasure of any Chinese takeout order, but I always want to it taste differently than it does. What does it need? Some lime? Fresh Crab? Yes! Here, our crab is the main ingredient with just enough cream cheese to help bind it. The lime and lime leaves give it a bright pop and help the crab remain as sweet as candy.

Serves 4 or 1 very hungry person

1 package of round wonton wrappers

8 oz. Jonah Combo Crabmeat
6 oz. whipped cream cheese
1 large shallot - minced
2 large scallions, sliced finely
3 large lime leaves, sliced finely
1 lime – zested and juiced
1 t fish sauce

Sweet chili sauce for dipping 

Combine all the ingredients except for the wrappers in a bowl and fold gently, making sure there are still some large chunks of crab visible. Taste to make sure the seasoning is to your liking. You may need to add more lime or a bit of salt according to your tastes.

Lay out the wrappers 6 at a time, keeping the rest in an airtight container or zip top bag. Place about a tablespoon of the crab mix in the center of each wrapper. Using your finger, wet the edges with water and then fold into a half moon.

In a large, deep skillet, heat about a half inch of canola oil to 350F. Fry the Rangoon in batches, cooking each side until the skins reach a golden brown. Serve immediately with the sweet chili sauce.

Recipe: Jonah Crab Dip

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This recipe started out as an indulgent snack in my early fish mongering days. I would take home a tub of crab meat, mix it with lemon, mayo, pepper and consume it with wavy potato chips. Now, I bring you version 2.0!

Serves 4 or 1 very ambitious crab lover

8 oz Jonah Combo Crabmeat
1/8 t. sriracha
4 oz mayo (Duke’s is the preferred brand)
1 large lemon; zest and juice
1 small shallot minced
1 T parsley, minced

Chips – I like a hearty crinkle cut salt and pepper chip, but something fancier will work too

Combine the crab, sriracha, and mayo in a bowl, making sure that there are still some large chunks of crab visible.

Fold in a splash of lemon juice and the zest, then taste for adjustment. The mix may need salt at this point.

Fold in the parsley and let the mix meld in the refrigerator for 30 minutes prior to serving. Serve with chips and enthusiasm