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Razor clam sauce

March 22, 2012

When I was young I would hop on my bicycle on a nice day and ride to my grandmother’s house on Cape Cod Bay. There I would get a little piano lesson or a manual typewriter lesson, a snack of cheese and ginger ale, and enjoy stories of the neighbors’ trespassing cats and outdoor trumpet practice sessions. There were what I considered to be incredible games of Scrabble. Sometimes we would just sit quietly and read 101 Uses for a Dead Cat or Doonesbury collections. And every now and then, when the weather was hot and the screen doors let the scents of cedar trees and seashore permeate the house, my grandmother would send us out to dig razor clams, or Atlantic jackknife clams.

She said it was for a marinara, but I was never there late enough to experience the finished product. I didn’t care about the supper. All I knew was racing barefoot down through the cedars and over the sharp driveway, then flying through the dune grass with my feet burning from the hot sand. Over the fiddler crabs I went and into the pickle grass, with a pause to grab a bunch to chew and then off across the peat and onto the wide expanse of flats. A children’s game refrain played in my head, “Red sand, Devil’s sand; blue sand, angel’s sand” as I skirted the evil sand and splashed across tide pools to the good flats. Soon I was fairly covered in glittery mica and digging elbow, then shoulder deep into the cool mud.

There was dense, hard sand on top of the flats, very dry and hard to dig, but it was easy to kneel in and made for a clean dig. On the edges of the flats close to the water the mud was loose, wet, dark and strong-smelling. It turned arms dark and put a fine layer of black mud under fingernails that would remain after many scrubs. A coating of briny mud was welcomed, as was the cleansing plunge in a deep tidal pool after digging. The deepest holes for low-tide swimming are long-gone, filled with sand like the rest of the creek so there is just enough to wade in at low-water. But pot-holes in the marsh keep a few feet of water in them when the tide recedes, and they still heat up in the summer sun to provide a saltwater hot tub with a white, sandy bottom and a slippery peat surround.

We’re still running out across that prickly peat, now chasing or racing our own children to the flats. They learn, as we did, the difference between a razor clam hole (often a slit or oval,) a steamer clam hole (usually round and pencil- to dime-sized,) and quahog holes (often tiny, as if poked by a pencil tip.) There are worms in the flats that leave a small hole, but they don’t squirt water out of the hole, so you won’t see sprayed droplets on the sand. The old-timers called steamers “piss clams”, but razors and hard-shells also spray. Locating the splatter-marks and following them back to their origin is an easy way to find buried bivalves.

Razors are fast. Unlike steamer clams, they will go sideways when they’re getting away. They have an extremely strong foot, and their slender shape allows them to tunnel deep, far and fast. Tight sand, though hard to dig in, prevents a hasty escape. I’ve been digging all my life bare-handed and often still do, but razor clams are as sharp as they sound, and care must be taken to avoid wounds. I use a two-finger approach that allows me to dig around the clam and grab it low enough that it can’t take off. Obviously, a rake and gloves make this easier, though rakes tend to crush shells. If using a rake, dig to a full-tine depth up to about where the hole is and then dig horizontally by hand to retrieve the clam.

Razors are tenacious. In water, they swim. Pulled out of their holes and deposited on sand they will stick out their white feet and try to inch into the sand and back underground. On land they’re fast for clams, but you don’t have to worry about them disappearing while you dig for more. If you happen to get into some razor clams, a sweet white clam sauce could be your reward. We don’t generally give them an overnight sand-purge in salt water, as we always do steamers, but it doesn’t hurt and will make straining the liquor easier. When you’re ready to prepare them, simply shuck them out live as you would with a quahog. Remove the meats over a bowl to capture the liquid, then strain over another bowl to separate the meat from the juice. Chop the clams, being careful to remove any bits of shell.

All measurements are approximate, as one rarely digs an exact amount of clams. Adjust measurements as your harvest requires:

Pasta with white razor clam sauce

30-40 6-inch razor clams

1/2 stick of butter

2 Tbs olive oil

half a large white onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, pressed or minced

1 cup white wine

reserved clam liquor

1/2 cup parsley, chopped

black pepper

Cook half a pound of pasta until al dente. While linguini is traditional, tube-shaped or cup-shaped pasta cradles bits of clam sauce nicely. While the pasta is cooking, heat the butter and olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until translucent, then add the garlic and cook until fragrant, without letting the garlic brown. Add the wine and reserved clam liquor, and simmer until reduced by half or until it is no longer watery. Add the chopped clams and cook, stirring frequently, for a few minutes until the clams are white and fully cooked, being careful not to over-cook. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the parsley and add pepper to taste. Ladle sauce over pasta and serve immediately. This will serve two as a main dish.

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