Just about all of the traditional dishes served at feasts celebrating the Chinese New Year – which this year falls on Feb. 19 – symbolize something wonderful to come. Round foods in particular are rich with meaning, their coin-like shape considered a nod to prosperity.
So let’s cook some clams! Round, delicious and so easy. Plus, clams are a twofer – a lean and delicious source of protein and the automatic generator of a tasty, instant sauce. When the clamshells steam open, the clam juice spills out. And that juice creates the perfect base for any flavorings you might want to add.
But clams also are quite perishable. So a few words of advice.
Clams are alive when you buy them and they need air, which is why most fishmongers poke holes in the plastic bags that carry them. You’ll want to bring them home as quickly as possible, take them out of the bag, cover them with a damp towel and store them in the cold back part of the refrigerator. Be sure to cook them within a few days.
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According to Rick Moonen, one of my favorite seafood chefs, most clams these days are cleansed of excess sand before they’re sold. But if you suspect that your batch might be quite sandy inside, soak them in heavily salted water (1/4 cup coarse salt for each quart of water) for 30 minutes.
Then, just before cooking the clams, scrub them well with a brush under cool running water until the shells feel clean and sand-free.
The easy part about cooking clams is that they tell you when they’re done by opening. The only hitch is that they don’t all open at the same time. This means that if you leave all of them in the pan until the last guy opens, the first one will be way overcooked.
Accordingly, you should remove each clam as its shell pops open. And if there’s one clam whose shell refuses to open, toss it. It’s likely dead and filled with sand.
Clams and bok choy with black bean sauce
Start to finish: 40 minutes
Can’t find fermented black beans? You can approximate a substitute by mashing together 4 teaspoons drained canned black beans and 2 teaspoons light or red miso.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
11/2 tablespoons finely grated fresh ginger
6 scallions, thinly sliced crosswise, white and greens parts kept separate
2 tablespoons fermented black beans rinsed well and mashed lightly with a fork
3 to 5 dried whole small chilies, or to taste
1 red bell pepper, cored and cut into thin 2-inch strips
3 dozen little neck clams, scrubbed
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth, divided
1 tablespoon rice wine or dry sherry
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 pound baby bok choy, halved lengthwise then thinly sliced crosswise
Cooked white or brown rice, to serve
In a large saucepan over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the garlic, ginger, scallion whites, fermented black beans and chilies. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
Add the red bell pepper and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the clams and 1/2 cup of the broth, then cover the pan tightly and steam the clams.
Check the pan regularly and, as they open, transfer the clams to a bowl. Discard any clams that do not open.
In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining 1/2 cup of broth, the rice wine, cornstarch and the soy sauce and add the mixture to the saucepan in a stream, whisking. Bring to a boil and add the bok choy. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
Return the clams, along with any juices from the bowl, to the pan. Cook, stirring to coat the clams with the sauce, until the clams are hot.
Serve the clams and broth over rice, then garnish each portion with scallion greens.
Per serving: 410 calories; 100 calories from fat (24 percent of total calories); 11 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 60 mg cholesterol; 46 g carbohydrate; 6 g fiber; 6 g sugar; 31 g protein; 1,310 mg sodium.