~ Classier Classic Clams (on the Halfshell) Casino ~
I've never gone to a casino for the sole purpose of gambling -- I've never even had the urge to. That said, thanks to more than a few of Joe's business trips I've been to Las Vegas, Reno and Atlantic City several times for days-at-a-time -- complete with gorgeous hotel rooms, tickets to live shows and dinners in fabulous restaurants. That said, casinos are indeed a glitzy, glamorous full-of-fun place to visit. They're akin to amusement parks for adults, and, just like the latter, "the bloom comes off the rose" rather quickly -- fun facades that suck up your bucks.
Clams Casino is considered a Classic Italian-American Dish.
Interestingly, clams casino is a clams "on the halfshell" dish that has little to do with the gaming industry per se, although every casino restaurant or restaurant in the vicinity of a casino has a variation of the dish on their menu. Clams casino, which means "big mess" in Italian, is a basic concoction of clams, bacon, butter, and breadcrumbs that work spectacularly together. Onion, garlic and bell peppers are common additions along with various herbs and seasonings.
According to legend the recipe was developed in 1917 by Julius Keller, the maître d'hôtel of the Little Casino in Narragansett, Rhode Island, for a Mrs. Paran Stevens, who wanted to treat her guests to a special appetizer. The dish was named "Casino" after the hotel and quickly became a signature appetizer throughout New England, then throughout the United States, including New Orleans, where oysters are substituted for clams. It's worth mention that in the early decades of the last century, if a restaurant wanted to be well-known, they came up with a signature dish that involved the baking of shellfish, often with the meat taken out of the shell, prepared with a sauce, then returned to and served in the shell. This dish became extremely popular with Italian-Americans and to this day has a spot on just about every trattoria menu.
Part One: Burping or Purging the Clams of Sand:
Soaking clams in cold water helps them burp out or purge the sand inside the shell. All clams, which live on the ocean floor, contain sand. It's caused by their constant siphoning the sandy ocean water through their shells. One of the least appetizing foodie experiences is to pick up a forkful of perfectly-cooked clams and end up with grit in your teeth -- a clear sign that the cook or chef didn't burp or purge the clams to remove the sand. Its an easy process which requires a couple of hours, so include that in your game plan, but, it can be done hours or a day ahead.
Gently tap each uncooked clam whose shell is open against your countertop. It should close immediately upon tapping. If it does not, it's dead and should be discarded. Rinse the clams under cold running water and use a stiff brush to scrub the shells of dirt or grit. Place the clams in a large bowl and cover with a mixture of 1 gallon of water + 1/4 cup sea salt per 2 pounds of clams. Let for about 30-45 minutes, then remove the clams individually and place in a colander. Discard the water in the bowl, replace with a fresh water and salt mixture, then return the clams to soak for another 30-45 minutes. Repeat the process another two or three times, until the water is clear of sand and grit. Drain and cook the clams in any manner you like.
Part Two: Making Breadcrumb Topping & Compound Butter
1 cup panko breadcrumbs, no substitutions
8 ounces salted butter, at room temperature, very soft (2 sticks)
1/2 cup finely-diced yellow or sweet onion
1/4 cup each: red and yellow bell pepper
2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
2 tablespoons dried parsley flakes or tarragon leaves (total throughout recipe -- 1 tablespoon for breadcrumbs, 1 tablespoon for compound butter)
2 teaspoons fennel powder (total throughout recipe -- 1 teaspoon for breadcrumbs, 1 teaspoon for compound butter)
1 teaspoon coarsely-ground black pepper (total throughout recipe -- 1/2 teaspoon for breadcrumbs, 1/2 teaspoon for compound butter)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (total throughout recipe -- 1/4 teaspoon for breadcrumbs, 1/4 teaspoon for compound butter)
lemon wedges, for squirting each finished serving of clams casino
~Step 1. To make the breadcrumb topping, place 7 ounces of the finely-diced bacon or pancetta in a 3-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon fennel powder, 1/2 teaspoon coarsely-ground black pepper and 1/4 teaspoon sea salt. Over medium-high, medium-, medium-low heat, stirring frequently, fry the meat until it is golden brown and crispy and has rendered its fat, about 6 minutes, lowering the heat as necessary if the mixture begins to smoke. Add the panko breadcrumbs and parsley or tarragon. Stirring constantly, cook until breadcrumbs are lightly-toasted, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a paper-towel lined plate to thoroughly drain and cool. You will have 1 1/2 cups of breadcrumb topping.
~Step 2. To make the compound butter, place the remaining 3 ounces of the finely-diced bacon or pancetta in the same 3-quart chef's pan. Over medium-high, medium-, medium-low heat, stirring frequently, fry the meat until it is golden brown and crispy and has rendered its fat, about 6 minutes, lowering the heat as necessary if the mixture begins to smoke. Stir in the onion, bell peppers, garlic and parsley or tarragon. Add the 1 teaspoon fennel powder, 1/2 teaspoon coarsely-ground black pepper and 1/4 teaspoon sea salt. Stirring constantly, cook until vegetables are softened, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a paper-towel lined plate to thoroughly drain and cool to room temperature, about 1 hour. Place butter in a large bowl and add the cooled meat/veggie mixture to the bowl. Using a rubber spatula, thoroughly combine. You will have 1 1/2 cups of compound butter.
Part Three: Partially-Steaming the Clams
The shells on clams should be closed when you buy them, or, they should close when tapped (as explained above). A clam that will not close when prodded is a dead clam. Throw it away. Fiction: A clam that doesn't open during the cooking process is a dead clam. Fact: A clam that doesn't open during the cooking process is a live clam that needs to be cooked longer. I've got 24 live topneck clams which have been purged as directed above. I am giving them a basic steam, in plain water today, until they just begin to open up, 1/4"-1/2", to partially-cook them. Some recipes don't steam them at all, they just pry the shells open (which takes quite a bit of strength) and work with raw clams. Partial-steaming makes them easy to pry open -- the clams themselves remain plump and juicy. I like to use my electric skillet for this task because it controls the heat perfectly, and, it has a glass lid which acts as a window -- allowing me to know just when to remove each clam.
~Step 1. Place 1 quart water in bottom of electric skillet and insert the rack. Close the lid and adjust the heat to high (400° on this skillet). In the meantime, drain and discard the water from the bowl of clams. When the water in the skillet is boiling, open the lid and place all of the clams on the rack. Close the lid and steam clams until each one opens up between 1/4"-1/2". Opening and closing the lid on the skillet as you work, use a pair of tongs to remove the partially-steamed clams as they open, transferring them to a plate or a bowl to cool.
~ Step 2. When the clams are cool enough to handle with your hands (about 15 minutes), pry them open. Using a pair of kitchen shears clip and remove the empty shell side, then, use the shears again to carefully clip and loosen the clam from it's half of the shell. Place "clams on the halfshell" on one large baking pan (or two smaller pans if you won't be baking them all at once).
Part Four: Assembling and Baking the Clams Casino
~ Step 1. Dollop a generous teaspoon of the compound butter onto the top of each clam and spread it around to the edges. When this melts around and down underneath the clam it is going to keep it plump, moist and juicy as it bakes.
Note: At this point, clams can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for several hours or overnight. Remove from refrigerator 1-2 hours prior to continuing with recipe as directed below:
~ Step 2. Top each clam with a scant tablespoon of the breadcrumb mixture, allowing it to mound a bit toward the center. Bake on center rack of preheated 400 degree oven until golden brown and bubbly, about 6 minutes. Do not over bake.
Remove pan of clams from oven and rest about 3-5 minutes. Trust me on this. The heat of the shell will keep them warm while the time allows all of the flavors and textures to come together.
Serve 4-5-6 per person, garnished w/lemon wedges:
Special Equipment List: stiff scrub brush; board; chef's knife; 3-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides; spatula; paper towels; large spoon or spatula; large rubber spatula; 16" electric skillet w/wire rack insert; tongs; kitchen shears; 1, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan or 2, 12 1/2" x 8 3/4" baking pans (Note: I like to use two disposable aluminum broiler pans, the kind with the corrugated bottoms. They prevent the clams from sliding around and there is zero cleanup.)
Cook's Note: It's funny how a craving for seafood always hits me around this time of year. Luckily, high-quality, flash-frozen, king crab legs are available to me year-round at our Happy Valley Sam's Club. ~ Mel's Wine & Tarragon-Steamed King Crab Legs w/Creamy Lemon-Tarragon & Shaved-Corn Orzotto ~ is a dish I simply adore. It's a perfect cold-weather seafood-craving indulgence. The recipe is in Categories 3, 4, 14 & 21.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2017)