In Search of the Biggest Bellies

I have enjoyed a family connection to New England ever since my brother graduated college in the early eighties and moved to Massachusetts for his first real-world job, where he has remained ever since.  So, throughout the remainder of my teen years, through high school, college, and law school, and continuing today into my married life, I’ve been trekking up through the highways and country roads of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut to visit him for inexpensive vacations featuring good times, free lodging, and great local cuisine.  At first, I went alone.  Then, I went with my wife.  On this most recent excursion up north, I went with my wife and my daughter.  Life goes on.

On one of those early trips, probably fifteen years ago, if not more, we found ourselves at the Atlantic Seafood Company, a restaurant in downtown Boston.  I had ordered a basket of fried clams, having been raised on those frozen orange boxes of Howard Johnson clam strips, which, despite having the texture of rubber bands, were actually quite tasty to my inner-city palate.  When the order came, I was dismayed to find, nestled among the traditional strips of fried clam, bulbous bits that came across as foreign, alien, and decidedly un-clamstrip-like.  I eyed my meal with growing suspicion.

Sensing my hesitation, my brother explained that these were belly clams that were local to the area.  Having not even suspected that clams had bellies, the concept was intriguing.  I fished a particularly large specimen out of the basket and popped it into my mouth, and,in doing so, triggered the start of a lifelong quest for the perfect fried belly clam.

It was unlike any other fried clam that I had tasted before.  Instead of having an antagonistic chew, the meat was tender and delicate.  The belly itself gushed when I bit into it, releasing a wave of clam juice and brine that was more evocative of the sea than any fried clam that I’d ever had before.  Instead of a thick wall of breading, these clams were lightly floured and fried quickly to retain their lightness.  I was hooked from the first bite, but also destined to be disappointed for years to come.

Ever since that fateful night, I have purposefully sought out fried belly clams, reviewing menus in seafood establishments and interrogating servers as to exactly how much “belly” was on the clams.  In nearly every instance, my order should have been accompanied by the tuba-sound of disappointment, as I was presented with plate after plate of sturdy clam strips, accompanied here and there by “bellies” that more closely resembled bubble wrap that’s already been popped than what I had eaten in Boston.  Belly clams may be native to the region, but finding true examples of them was largely hit-or-miss.

On our recent trip, then, to see my brother in Massachusetts and to introduce the baby to more family in Maine, I had fried belly clams on the brain.  I had done some research, which led me to this wonderful New York Times article on the subject.  To my surprise and delight, punching in the address of the Clam Box in Ipswich revealed that it was only a mere 2 hours from my brother’s house, in the direction that we were already headed on our way to Maine.

It was on.

At noon, we packed up the car and headed northeast, bound for Portland.  I programmed the address for the Clam Box into our GPS, and by the time our breakfast began to wear off, we were leaving Interstate 95 and cruising through narrow coastal roads on the way to Ipswich, catching fleeting glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean between the houses as we sped along.  As the road curved ahead of us, I spied a small, single story building shaped like a massive takeout box – a takeout box full of clams, to be precise.

Pulling into the sunbaked, gravel-covered parking lot, I trotted to the main entrance to find a short line of customers waiting to get inside.  The queue was not unlike the scene at Pat’s Steaks in Philadelphia, and it moved just as quickly and efficiently.  While we were standing in line, I craned my neck to review the menu, which was posted above the order windows, and which only yielded more questions than answers – what, for example, was the difference between a “plate”, a “mini-meal”, and a “box”? Chatting with the woman behind me, who happened to be a 29-year veteran devotee of the Clam Box, I determined that the difference lay in the number of sides.

We soon reached the window and placed our orders.  On a small whiteboard that was posted next to the main menu, a thick blue marker had been used to post the note “BIG BELLIES ON REQUEST”.   I asked the woman for the mini-meal of big belly clams, and my wife ordered a plate of native clams.  We shuffled into the dark, nautically-themed dining room and waited for our number to be called on the PA system.  The kitchen is fast, no doubt because they only serve a few items, all fried.

When our order was ready, my wife returned from the pickup window with a plastic tray that overflowed with huge plates of fried seafood.  As it turns out, ordering “big belly clams” by name actually did make a difference, as the clams in my order were a bit larger, belly-wise, than those that occupied my wife’s plate.  There was little distinction, though, to the taste – both the native clams and the belly clams featured a bright flavor that would be a revelation to anyone who’s ever been limited to frozen fried seafood.  These clams were the absolute ideal representation of what a proper fried belly clam should be – plump, light, full of clammy flavor, accompanied by a nice dish of cole slaw, with fries and onion rings on the side.  A paper cup of tartar sauce, spiked with fragments of sharp pickle, paired perfectly with every bite.

Traditions are good things, and perhaps there is nothing better than realizing that you have taken your first step in creating a new one.  This was a meal that was definitely worth repeating, and will undoubtedly become a regular occurrence on our subsequent trips to New England.  Our stop at the Clam Box served to bring me back to one of my fondest memories of the past, while making me yearn for that day in the future where I get to introduce my daughter to the taste of a real fried clam.

June 14, 2010   Comments

Off With Their Heads!

I’ve lucked into one of the best situations, food-wise, that one could possibly have stumbled upon – my neighbor loves to fish, but he and his wife don’t cook on a regular basis, and even if he did cook the fish, I don’t think she’s at all interested in eating it.

A few weeks ago, mere hours after getting his Pennsylvania fishing license for the season, my neighbor called me.  “Want some fish?” he said.  He has a knack for wading into water and, ten minutes later, emerging with the catch of the day.

This brought up something of a dilemma for me.  For one thing, I was just about to put dinner on the table, so the fish would have to be refrigerated for at least a day.  More importantly, I had never cleaned a fish before – in fact, I had never even handled any type of whole fish in the kitchen.  For me, fish is something that comes cleaned and filleted and wrapped in butcher’s paper from the guy behind the seafood counter.

Suffice it to say, then, that the prospect of decapitating and gutting a fish was somewhat intimidating – but the fish were out of the water, and were going to go to waste unless I agreed to take them off of my neighbor’s hands.  With some measure of reluctance, I told my neighbor to come on over, and in ten minutes he was standing in my kitchen with a plastic grocery bag filled with four trout.

He said he would teach me how to clean fish, and that it wasn’t hard to do.  You know what?  He was right.  Sure, it’s messy, but no more messy than dealing with the gizzards from a chicken or turkey.

Dinner was placed in a holding pattern while, at his instruction, I lined the kitchen island with a double layer of newspaper.  I had not expected the fresh fish to be so slippery, almost slimy – it is the antithesis of what everyone comes to expect from kitchen ingredients, since in every other instance, a slimy ingredient is a sure indication of spoilage and rot.  But here, it meant that the fish were the freshest you could possibly hope for.  The newspaper helps to keep the fish in place, more so than a cutting board would, and you’ll appreciate the absorption that it provides when the knives come out.

I know that I haven’t sharpened my knives in a while, and nothing demonstrates the need for a sharp blade more than cleaning fish.  Holding each trout firmly in one hand, I used my other hand to cut the heads off – something that ideally should only take one or two swipes, but with a dull knife can be near impossible – it took me a couple of whacks, but wasn’t an overly frustrating ordeal.  Flipping each fish over, I removed the tails in a similar fashion.  For the squeamish, I can say that the trout did not bleed as much as I would have expected – on the other hand, you should also know that, unlike supermarket chickens, their innards are not neatly held in a little paper bag (but, on the other other hand, they don’t have very many innards, so it’s not like you’re cutting open a tauntaun with a lightsaber).  A turn of the blade, and each trout was butterflied – emptied and rinsed thoroughly under cool running water in the sink.  At this point, they were ready to be placed into a plastic bag and refrigerated.

Fast forward to the next day.  Since the fish were so fresh, I wanted a very simple preparation that would highlight the trout in its purest form.  I decided to steam them with some ginger, garlic, and soy – a preparation that almost doesn’t even need a recipe, but I’ll mock one up here for you off of the top of my head.

Steamed Trout with Ginger, Garlic, and Soy

Trout, cleaned
1 knob of ginger, peeled, sliced thinly
2 cloves of garlic, peeled, sliced thinly
2 Tbs white wine mixed with 2 Tbs soy sauce and 1 Tbs sesame oil
Scallions, chopped
Salt and pepper

Set some water in a pot over high heat.  Get your steamer insert out and keep it nearby.  Rinse the trout thoroughly under cool running water.

Lay each trout open on a clean working surface, and sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Layer the ginger, garlic, and chopped scallions inside of each trout, and spoon the wine/soy mixture over all of that.  Fold the trout closed to make a packet and place into the steamer insert.

When the water is at a full boil, place the steamer insert into the pot, cover, and steam the fish for fifteen minutes.

How to Eat Whole Fish

Yes, steamed fish deserves a “How to Eat” section in the recipe, because if you attack any kind of whole fish willy nilly with a fork, you’ll end up with a mouthful of tiny fish bones and come away with a generally unpleasant experience.  This is probably why more people don’t eat whole fish.

Once you have your fish on a plate, use your fork to gently pull and scrape away the skin, leaving only the delicate white flesh (don’t flip it over until you’ve eaten the top half).

Orient the fish so that the spine is on your left, tail end pointing away from you.  On the left side, you’ll find a nice, thick ribbon of meat running the length of the fish.  Use your fork to gently pry the fish up and away from the bone – this is the easiest meat to extract.  You can either choose to eat this now or continue boning.

Now, from the center of the fish, going to the right-most edge (the belly) are the very fine bones that make up the fish skeletal structure.  Use your fork or a spoon to gently scrape the flesh from left to right, which should encourage the meat to slide along the axis of the bones and right onto your plate.

When you’re done, just flip the fish over and repeat for the other side.

April 13, 2009   Comments

Oysters at Red’s Ice House in Shem Creek, SC

The Happy Hour special at Red’s – a bucket of steamed oysters for eight bucks, comes with a glove and shucking knife.

October 17, 2008   Comments

Fried Seafood Platter at Hyman’s Seafood, Charleston SC

Roughly counterclockwise – a ball of Mac and Cheese, fried shrimp, deviled crab, fried oysters, and the best hush puppies ever.

Another quickpost from the road.

October 15, 2008   Comments