Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Razor Clams

The pacific coast razor clam can be located from Northern California to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Like foraged mushrooms they are one of our greatest and least expensive delicacies. I work with them often, and have breaded and cooked thousands. Recently a chef whom i have known for sometime, and have much respect for, asked me to come to his cooking school and teach a class about them. In tern my spare time thoughts for the next few weeks will consist of becoming a razor clam connoisseur. Needless to say i am ridiculously nervous. I will teach the Saturday class in the beginning of October with him there to help, and oversee. And then again on my own later in the month. I would complain to all of you but its a great opportunity, and will push me to become a better cook. If the class was about making stock, or knife cuts, or something I could just stroll in 10 minutes before it started and get to it. That is not the case with the razor clams though.

Available usually from mid spring until fall (recreationally), and all you need is a permit ($20-$25) a low tide, some boots, and a shovel or clam gun. On a good morning some of the pros i know can catch their limit in a matter of 30 minutes or so. Stored in ocean water, they will last (alive) in the fridge for a few days. Or some people with just rinse them and set them in the fridge for a day or so. Regardless the need is to get them cleaned and eaten or frozen as soon as possible. While ceviche, steamed, soups, chowders, etc are all wonderful applications, most people want them breaded and pan fried. Served with some sort of familiar and simple sauce and a wedge of lemon. We three stage ours at the restaurant with panko, but traditionalists will use cracker or bread crumbs of some sort.

Commercial harvest happens in parts of Washington, Canada, and a few different areas in Alaska. the commercial industry is highly regulated so in fresh form they are tough to find, available maybe 10-20 times a year. The upside is once cleaned they have a great shelf life (for a seafood product) and will last a good 10 days on ice. We were seeing them fresh even less until part of the Washington coast decided that they would allow commercial clamming once a month for a day. Keep in mind though that samples have to be taken and all shellfish can be prone to what we call a "red tide".  A red tide means that the water toxin levels are at a abnormally high level and will stop clamming, or catching of all shellfish, until the tide passes and the water is deemed safe again. Regardless of commercial, or recreational this has a pretty big effect, and usually causes me to run out on a few different menu items (a chefs, server, or managers worst case in the restaurant business).  Always check any local warnings immediately prior to going clamming, or crabbing. You also need a really low tide, and fairly good weather to get the harvesters to go out. There was more than a few times in the last year that one of those three things have failed to line up with the picked harvest date.

The other tough thing about razor clams is that they are very hard to clean. This is a living creature up to that point that buries itself in the sand, so they are pretty dirty and sandy. Once dug they are usually blanched in boiling water to open the shell, then iced to prevent cooking at this point. peeled away from the shell, then attacked with either a paring knife or a pair a scissors the first cut is up the zipper to open up, and then through both of the valves. The gills have to be removed as does the kidney. All of this usually happens at a sink under running water to continually rinse the sand away. A few serious razor clam guys i know can do about 1 clam every 90 seconds or so. Some cut the actual "digger" part of the clam off and others like to leave it all in one piece. Once a razor clam gets to this point (the most available product will look like this) they are called razor clam steaks. The jury is also out on the neck. The neck contains the valves and can be pretty tough. Some cut it totally off, others tenderize it with a meat mallet, and others still leave it and consider it part of the animal. At work we have to be very careful not to put the neck on the plate in a presentation that will lead the customer to have it be the first bite. Usually if you aren't familiar with the texture they will be a disappointment as they aren't as tender as most of the clams most people eat on a regular basis. Once overcooked they are the equivalent of a car tire. As far as cooking to prevent that, you need a hot pan (cast iron) and a fair amount of fat. The goal is to get them brown as quick as possible, and are overcooked after much more than about 60 seconds a side.

I am amazed at the dedication of some razor clam enthusiast. Up very early in the morning to clog around in the wet sand and rain to catch a limit of clams, only to come home to spend 2 hours cleaning them. That being said they are absolutely delicious, and a tradition that many people grew up doing, and continue to do with their families.

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