Lambs And Clams, Fit The Second: Che Casino

For the second entry in the Charleston Wine and Food Festival contest thingy, the Rappahannock River Oysters company sent me a box with a big bag each of their oysters and clams. I had been thinking about what to do with them for a while, and worked out a couple of ideas that I was excited to try. Then, of course, Sandy hit, taking our electricity for most of a week, so I had to modify both recipes to require only the stove top and grill.

The oysters were very simple; I really prefer them raw, but that doesn’t make for much of a recipe. This was an attempt to prepare them without overwhelming their delicate flavor, and it worked famously. Because they are filter feeders, and alive when we buy them (or get them in the mail for free), they offer a unique opportunity for flavoring them: live brining. I can’t remember where I read about this—it was ages ago—but since seawater is around 3.5 percent salt, that puts it right in the range of fermented pickles; my kimchi is made with a 4 percent brine. I took the oysters and put them in a container, poured some slightly diluted kimchi brine in to cover them, and left them overnight in the fridge to do their thing, seasoning themselves with the bright and funky flavors as they pump the brine through their bodies.

The next day (we ate early because it was cold and getting dark, and cooking with a headlamp is not that much fun) I lit the grill with charcoal and some maple branches that came down in the storm, and put the oysters on to cook just until they opened. I pulled them off the fire, carefully reserving their liquid in a bowl, and removed the top shells. I mixed some of the oyster liquid with a simple mignonette (red wine vinegar and minced shallots) and some chives for color, spooned it over them, and served them by candlelight. The kimchi and smoke notes and the piquant sauce informed the oysters’ flavor without overwhelming it, and the serving dish was a barren pile of inverted shells in short order. Not the worst appetizer to enjoy during the cold, dark privations of a blackout.

The clams inspired me to make clams casino, but with a twist that updated the tired relic of a bygone age. This is not exactly how they would have turned out if we had had power, but the flavors were identical. It’s simple: you make crackery tuile things with the breadcrumbs and peppers and such that would normally go on top, use clam shells to trim and shape them while they’re warm,and then serve the clam in them with bacon on top so they look like the normal dish but you can eat them shell and all. Because the oven doesn’t work with no power, I had to do this all on the stovetop. Thus what would have been delicate tuiles that I baked on a silpat and molded over clam shells had to be cooked instead in the little muffin tin inside the big sauté pan over a burner. But you get the idea.

Clams Casino

1 medium onion

1 red bell pepper

1 clove minced garlic

1 egg

1 cup breadcrumbs

1 tablespoon flour

2 tablespoons softened butter

1 teaspoon dried oregano (I used homemade herbes de Provence)

salt and pepper ( a fat pinch of each)

Three slices of bacon cut crosswise into four rectangles each

Preheat the oven to 350˚. Wash and shuck or steam the clams, reserving the shells. Finely dice the pepper and onion and sweat them in a pan with butter or olive oil until very soft and beginning to color. Add the garlic and stir for another minute or so, then remove the mixture to a bowl. Add the breadcrumbs, herbs, flour, butter, salt, pepper, and egg and stir to combine. Using a three inch ring mold, spread the mixture out on a silpat, making as many circles as you need. (This should make enough for a dozen clams). Bake them for about fifteen minutes, until they are browned and bubbly. Let them cool enough to handle, and drape each tuile over the outside of a clamshell, pressing it gently and trimming any extra, so that it takes the shape of the shell. Let them cool completely, then remove the tuiles from the shells.

Alternately, spread the batter thinly inside buttered miniature muffin tins and bake as above. Remove them when cooled and proceed.

Take the clams—raw or steamed—and put them in the “shells.” If you’re using raw clams—I steamed mine, because the broiler was not an option—put one in each shell and top with a slice of bacon and broil them until the bacon is brown and bubbly. Watch them carefully so they don’t overcook and fall apart. I used our homemade miso-cured version, sliced nice and thick, that I browned well in a pan, again because I couldn’t broil it. If you steam the clams, put one in each shell, top with bacon, and broil as above or cook the bacon separately and then put a piece on top of each one. Throw a few chives on top and eat them while they’re hot.

These are excellent canapés, and it’s always fun to drag some dated old trope into the present in a way that both amuses and satisfies. Obviously having the shells look like, you know, shells would have been nice, but this was the best I could do under the circumstances. I will likely do this again soon, probably for Thanksgiving as part of my annual multi-course extravaganza.

Voting from the public does effect the outcome, so once they have their page up I will hit on you all to zip over and vote for me. Thanks in advance, and let me know if you make these.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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