If you search YouTube for videos of razor clamming, like my friend did when he wanted to show his family what we did on Sunday evening, you might find this one, which makes it look absurdly easy.
This is not razor clamming. This is a video of some guys who fitted razor clams with magnetic attractors of some sort, planted them in a bed of fine, pretty sand in their back yard, washed them over with water to make it look like the tide had run out, and dug them up using a clam gun (that big, heavy, metal tubey thing in the video) and some sort of X-ray sensing device to determine precisely where the clams were located.
But that’s not how it really works. Not for me, anyway.
When I learned that razor clams thrive up and down Washington’s eastern shore, my reaction was mixed. Sure, I’d love to forage for my own food, but truth be told, I’m not a huge clam fan. With regular clams – quahogs or cherrystones or even tiny Manila clams, or especially littlenecks, with their leathery little siphons – I get a little grossed out when my teeth find the barrier between the smooth, thin muscle and the viscera it protects, and when popping one in my mouth means finding a few grains of sand to grind between my molars, I cringe. It’s a texture thing, I guess.
But razor clams are different, I heard, at least the ones found around here. When you clean them, you take the stomach out entirely, and open them up in such a way that the sand gets washed away, so what’s left to cook is pure muscle. No guts, no sand. They’re the boneless, skinless chicken breasts of the clam family, as my friend Jill put it.
That’s why on Sunday, with the afternoon sun beating in through the windshield, I set myself adrift toward Twin Harbors beach in post-Thanksgiving traffic with a buddy, a dog, and a razor clamming license, determined to find a clam I could call a friend. Instead of that handy clam gun, we came armed with one shovel and our respective arsenals of waterproof winter clothing.
So here’s how it does work: You follow two small children around, depending on them to see the signs of life under the sand that you are somehow completely incapable of recognizing. They tell you to dig, and you dig, not down a foot or so, like in the video. Actually, that part’s true, you do dig a foot or so down with your shovel, first. Then you fall to the sand and start heaving sand out in messy handfuls, like you’re pawing through a giant vat of 34-degree Cream of Wheat, and you feel your dog staring at you. She’s got her head tilted to the side, wondering who the hell taught you to dig like that. But as soon you feel the tip of the clam, it digs down farther and slightly seaward, so you flatten your chest to the sand and get your whole arm involved, right up to the armpit. You have to make sure you have your watch on and the sleeves of your fleece a little bit open when you plunge your hand into the liquefied sand, so that millions of hard little particles dive directly up your sleeve, where they exfoliate your elbows, and down under your watch band and into your good biking gloves.
Then, and only then, do you bring the clam up. Sometimes, when the sand at the surface of the hole solidifies around your bicep and elbow, getting one’s arm out requires significant effort and considerable grunting. I’d guess I dug faster than the clam did about half the time, and of the twelve clams I did manage to finally drop in my square yellow bucket, almost half had shells I’d shattered with the shovel on the way in. Poor guys.
Then, when the children you’re with have caught their limit (I’m pretty sure the five-year-old beat my catch) , and you’re limping back to the car, filthy with sand and freezing and happy even though your clamming skills really do need some work, you have to sing a clam song. There’s no particular song; it’s not like sailing, where there’s a song for the mainsail going up, a song for the anchor, and a song for washing the deck. In our case, it was a variation of the Twelve Days of Christmas (again with the Christmas carols?). We started in the middle somewhere: Six buckets swinging, FIIIIIVE MANGLED CLAMS. Four clamming shovels, three cold butts, two new diggers, and a. . .
We never did figure out what could stand in for the partridge.
I have to save the nuts and bolts of cleaning and cooking clams for better-paying print, but here’s what they look like before you get those gorgeous shells off:
Here’s the video I took (with my husband’s camera, which I will soon return to him, because my camera’s baaaaaack!) of someone showing me how to actually clean the things.
And here’s a clam without any clothes on:
If you’re patient and good with scissors, you can clean them so that the digger (the part on the right) stays attached to the rest, and nestles into the little hole you see in the body on the left, but it will still flop around when you cook it, and the digger takes a bit longer to cook than the body, so why bother?
Oh, and on the eating part: They don’t taste like regular clams. They taste so much better.
But what does one do with them, you ask?
Late on the night of the dig, we dredged them in flour and fried them up in olive oil. It was a good choice – the clams were still tender, and not at all leathery, like I hear they can get if you cook them too long – but I wanted more crunchy texture, and a little more flavor. Yesterday I dusted them in cornmeal and fried them up in butter. After all that clam killing, I felt somehow nicer breading them in something with a sandy texture. You know, remind ’em of home. Twisted? Maybe.
There’s not much to it, really. You just season a clean razor clam with salt and pepper, drop a good knob of butter into a pretty hot pan, dredge the clam in cornmeal, and sear it for a minute or so on each side. When they cook, the clams curl up a bit, like bacon in a hot pan, and if the razor clams weren’t so neatly cleaned (they weren’t all this pretty), the two halves of the clam splay out and bounce around in the hot pan like the legs of a very unfortunate frog. You can squeeze a bit of lemon over the top when you’re done, like I did, or just eat them, as fast as they come out of the pan.
It is so worth going.
11 responses to “331: Pan-fried razor clams”
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Amazing! The razor clams I’ve seen are more the size of your pinky, and I once ate some at La Boqueria in Barcelona, but those, those are like monster sized!
It is so much more fun if you have a clam gun! I grew up in Long Beach, WA, and clamming was a big part of growing up. If you ever want to go again, try asking around and borrowing one. We would make huge pots of Manhattan clam chowder. Makes me miss the coast here in Illinois.
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Great blog. Just for the record, the tube is not the “gun;” that’s the shovel. Only “old settler” Washingtonians know that anymore. The tube is a tube. I eschew the tube; all it ever does for me is mangle the clam. I still dig like I did when I was one of those clam-snatching kids you mention: pull out one or two quick scoops with my clam gun, then down into the hole with my hand. Then there’s the wrestling to get the guy out, and the final feeling of triumph as he comes free.
Cooking hint: try butterflying them in the shell, marinating for while, then grilling very briefly either meat-side down on the barbecue or meat-side up under the broiler. Nobody ever seems to do this in Washington (except me), but it’s par for the course for European razor clams, and makes an excellent and high-class appetiser.
RK – That sounds delicious! And thanks for the tips!
Flour, eggwash, panko those babies and flash fry in really hot oil – nothing is better. Also, save the diggers, grind them and make clam chowder – they’re too tough to eat fried. Uwajimaya (Seattle) has fresh razor clams – don’t know if they will clean them for you.
The video you reference is no trick. I grew up digging, cleaning, and eating literally thousands of razor clams. All we ever used were clam guns that my shop teacher father made. Find the shallow, caldera-like hole, stand with your back to the surf, angle the top of the gun slightly away from the surf, plunge, pull, and voila! You have a clam! Maybe not as adventurous as the shovel method, but easier and less messy.
With a family of 6, and me the only boy, cleaning fell to me–6 limits, 90 clams. But boy it was worth it. My mom made the best clam chowder on the planet. Thanks for the memory. I just cooked up a batch of good old Washington razor clams. Yum!
o’my gosh this stuff is sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo awesome. thanks fer the recipe . this stuff is da bomb.
I wasn’t aware Washington had an “eastern” shore. Where exactly is this eastern shore you speak of?
Ahhh, former east coasters… I always forget which is which.