AN APPRECIATION OF A LOCAL ICON
by Johnette Rodriguez | photographs by Angel Tucker
Newcomers and visitors to Rhode Island are often struck by the word “quahog” on local menus, stumbling on its pronunciation (KO-hog, from the Native American “poquauhock”) and not always guessing that it’s a clam. In fact, its name encompasses three main sizes of hard-shelled clams that show up in local res- taurants: littlenecks, cherrystones, and chowders (the latter are often called just quahogs). The first two show up at raw bars; the third is always cooked but can be used in many ways other than just chowder.
The quahog has become an iconic symbol of the state itself, having been declared the official “state shell” in 1987, and making appearances in local-turned- national comic literature. Where would Narragansett cartoonist Don Bousquet be without his thick-armed quahoggers and wise-cracking clams? Or Rhody native Seth MacFarlane, who set his network TV comedy, Family Guy, in fictional Quahog, R.I.?
A website billing itself “the definitive Rhode Island road trip,” with articles on the state’s history, folklore and food, is, appropriately, www.quahog.org. Towns on both sides of Narragansett Bay used to hold quahog “festivals,” serving up quahog-centric vittles. And wampum jewelry, made from purple-hued pieces of the inside of quahog shells, is popular at craft fairs and gift shops.
But the quahog really shines in Rhode Island cuisine—be it littlenecks in sauce, cherrystones on the grill, or chopped quahogs in soup and fritters—and in the livelihood and lifestyle it has given to the shell- fishermen and aquaculturists who harvest quahogs.
“This has been the best job I could ever imagine having,” noted Jody King, former vice-president of the Rhode Island Shellfishermen’s Association and a quahogger who puts in 250 days a year on Narragansett Bay.
In contrast to declining supplies of finfish, the quahoggers have found increasing access to parts of Narragansett Bay that used to be routinely closed due to pollution. The tunnel under Providence, from the Statehouse to the bay, is the first stage of a broader Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) abatement project, and it has contributed greatly to less-restricted clamming. In addition, the quahog seeding that’s been going on over the past decade has started to produce adult quahogs, increasing the overall supply in the Bay, in both recreational and commercial areas.
Because Rhode Island waters are between the very cold temperatures of Canadian waters and the very warm ones in Florida, the quahogs taken from Narragansett Bay last much longer—up to three weeks in a refrigerator, according to King—than those harvested elsewhere.
“Clams from Florida’s 70-degree water go into shock in a 40-degree refrigerator,” he explained. “Those from Canada, at 30 degrees, think they’re on vacation. But those from Rhode Island’s 40-degree water think they’re going back in the water!”
That means that Rhode Island supplies more than a quarter of the country’s commercial quahog catch and that the lowly quahog has become the most important resource taken from the bay.
Another real kicker for Rhode Island quahogs has been aquaculture. As King quipped, “They’re able to produce them a lot quicker than God can—probably three-and-a-half years [compared] to seven years in the wild.”
So, as outlanders continue to discover the tasty, versatile quahog, Rhody natives and residents continue to use clams in the recipes of their ancestors, be they Italian, Portuguese, or Old Yankee. And local restaurateurs get creative with quahogs, of any size.
Let’s begin with those Rhode Island dishes, such as clear chowder, red chowder, stuffies, clam cakes, clams casino, and linguine with clam sauce, several of which are still seldom found (or even heard of) outside New England. Stuffies have been most succinctly described as “clam meatloaf in an ashtray,” by song- writer Jon Campbell, whose “One Clam Cake” is also an ode to that Rhody fritter.
As with many such bread-based dishes, stuffies came into being to stretch budgets and provide carb- stoking meals for fishermen, farmers, and other long-day laborers. In Rhode Island, stuffies begin with quahogs (whose shells have often been used as ash- trays). The clam juice moistens the bread cubes and/or cracker-crumbs, and some stuffie cooks add chopped onion, celery, sweet or hot peppers; some spice it like Thanksgiving stuffing; others like a Portuguese stew, complete with chouriço. Once the stuffie mixture is made, it is piled back into the quahog shell, often shaped by the size of the person’s hand that is making it.
For a basic stuffie, head to Amaral’s in Warren. Amaral’s prides itself on letting the seafood shine through: no veggies, just the clams, good crispiness on the top from baking in a hot oven.
Champlin’s, Narragansett, also sells primarily “basic” stuffies, though they also offer “casino stuffies” with bacon and “Portuguese stuffies” with chouriço. Quito’s, in Bristol, has an even smokier taste. Anthony’s in Middletown and the Common’s Lunch in Little Compton both serve heaped-high stuffies, with chouriço in both.
A brand-new favorite for stuffies are the ones at The Sea Goose, in Westerly (see recipe). Owner/chef Andrew Nathan admits that, despite his restaurant’s emphasis on seafood, he didn’t want to serve a stuffie or a clam cake (see recipe) until he could find a recipe that grabbed his taste buds (and those of his partner/ co-owner Jennifer Gibson). Both clam dishes incor- porate ground quahogs, not ocean clams, Nathan em- phasized, and both have gentle herbs and spices that don’t overwhelm the clam flavor.
An upscale cousin of the stuffie is clams casino, though it is made with littlenecks or cherrystones. It was originally developed in 1917 for the Little Casino in Narragansett, as a specialty for a wealthy patron. This particular Rhody invention spread across the country, in various incarnations, even using oysters in New Orleans. One requisite ingredient is bacon, with some versions spicing it up with peppers and garlic and others leaving it milder, with white wine and lemon juice. A bit of breading is added, the mixture is piled back into the shell, and then baked, as with a stuffie.
Rhode Island also has two distinctive chowders, a clear broth version and a red version, the latter with tomatoes but not Manhattan-style. Maria Gonsalves Pomoranski came to the U.S. when she was 9, from a tiny village in eastern Portugal, and her recipe for red chowder (see recipe) begins with meticulous cleaning of the clams. She scrubs them under cold running water and then puts them in a large bowl, covers them with water, and sprinkles in either breadcrumbs or cornmeal before sticking them in the refrigerator.
“The clams take in the breadcrumbs and ‘spit out’ sand and dirt,” she explained. “I change the water several times and add more breadcrumbs.”
Pomoranski notes that what gives her recipe its Portuguese influence is not only the chouriço or linguiça sliced into it but the tiny chopping of the vegetables and quahogs. She stresses that the clams might take a full day to clean themselves, and then she steams them “until they open up on their own—no need to shuck.”
Nathan does the same for the quahogs he uses in his quahog Bolognese sauce (see recipe) and the littlenecks he pairs with linguine, in traditional Rhode Island style. What makes the latter special is the generous portion of chopped littlenecks tossed with the linguine, in addition to those perched in their shells around the edge of the plate. What distinguishes the Bolognese (in addition to the quahogs as “the meat” in the sauce) is its lightness—the flavor of each vegetable is retained.
Ex-pat Rhode Islanders or even those living in Providence, who’ve been too long away from the shore, get a glazed look in their eyes when speaking about linguine with clams. An inexplicable longing for this dish sometimes engulfs them, and they either head off for a favorite restaurant or, if they’re too far inland, they pull out a can of clams and throw in the linguine!
Zoe Conte, now general manager of Plum Point Bistro in Saunderstown, has been in the restaurant business with her parents Ralph and Elisa Conte since she could barely pronounce spaghetti. The linguine and clams at Plum Point are a customer favorite, but Conte favors her family’s own made-at-home summer recipe, with fresh tomatoes and basil giving extra oomph to the clams and garlic (see recipe).
Coming full circle to the clear-broth chowder that native Rhode Islanders prefer and many from outside the state had never encountered before they visited, it’s a case of people growing up by the water, digging clams from an early age, and wanting to taste the flavor of the clams in their chowder and not have them diluted with milk or cream. It’s no surprise that the “New England” version made it big across the country, because it’s a milder seafood taste.
But for family gatherings, for firehouse suppers, for shoreline clambakes and for chowder cook-offs, the “chowdah” of choice is the clear broth one (see prize- winning recipe). So there you have it: clams all the way.
You can dig ‘em, buy the fresh-shucked quahog meat at local fish markets or you can even grab a can of them (albeit not quahogs but chopped ocean or surf clams). And then you can indulge in the definitive tastes of the Ocean State, from clam cakes to clams casino, from in-shell baked to on-the-half-shell raw, from soups to zuppas (pasta dishes).
Happy slurping, sipping or supping!
+ RHODE ISLAND CLAM CAKES
- 2 cups flour
- ¼ cup corn meal
- ½ Tb. baking powder
- 1 Tb. Old Bay seasoning 1 Tb. salt
- ½ teaspoon pepper 2 eggs
- scallion sliced fine 1 cup clam broth
- cups chopped steamed quahogs 2 T Crystal hot sauce
- Sift together the dry ingredients and set.
- In a medium bowl mix egg, clam broth, and hot sauce Stir in clams. Add dry ingredients, a little at a time, stirring well until the mixture forms a sticky ball.
- Drop by tablespoonful into hot peanut oil. Test the oil (350°) first by dropping a small amount, about the size of a dime, in the oil. If it sizzles rapidly, then it’s hot enough to fry the clam cakes. Fry until brown. Drain on paper tow
Note: Clam cakes fry up well if the wet stuff is chilled until ready to use. The more you stir the mixture, the chewier the clam cake will be.
- onion small dice
- piece celery small dice
- 1 green bell pepper small dice 1 red bell pepper small dice
- 3 cloves chopped garlic
- ¼ lb. butter
- lb Portuguese chouriço crumbled 1 T Old Bay seasoning
- ¼ cup lemon juice 1 Tb. salt
- ½ Tb. pepper
- ¼ cup Crystal hot sauce 1 cup clam broth
- 2cups Ritz cracker crumbs
- 2 cups chopped steamed quahogs Shells from 20 quahogs
- Cook the sausage in the butter with the peppers, onions, garlic & celery till
- Take off the fire and add everything else except the Ritz cracker
- Let cool, add cracker crumbs, taste-adjust seasoning, and stuff into
- Bake at 350° for 10 to 15 minutes. Broil to get a good crust and serve with lemon.
+ QUAHOG BOLOGNESE
- 1 onion finely diced
- ½ cup carrots finely diced 1 rib celery finely diced
- ¼ cup olive oil
- ¼ lb. butter
- 1 Tb. chopped garlic 1 bay leaf
- cup red wine
- ¼ cup milk
- One 14-ounce can crushed plum tomatoes
- cups chopped steamed quahogs with broth reserved Chopped parsley
- Pecorino Romano for grating 1 lb. linguine or bucatini
- 1 Tb. butter
- First steam the quahogs, then let them cool.
- Shell and chop them by hand.
- Reserve the broth to use when preparing the final dish and freeze the leftover for chowder.
- In a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter in the olive oil. Sweat the vegetables (not the garlic) till almost browned—but don’t brown them—add bay leaf and red wine, cook out red wine, and add milk.
- Bring to a boil and add garlic and tomato. Cook gently for 20 to 30 minutes.
- Remove from heat, and add salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper (if desired).
- Cook pasta.
- In a sauté or other pan melt butter and add quahogs, sauté till warm, add ¼ cup reserved clam broth. Add sauce and taste to adjust seasoning. Add pasta and toss.
- Place into four bowls, and top with parsley and grated Romano
+ ZOE’S SPAGHETTI AND CLAM SAUCE
- dozen littleneck clams
- medium-sized ripe tomatoes, chopped ¼ inch
- ½ lb. dried spaghetti
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ½ cup fresh basil, julienne cut
- ¼ cup sliced garlic
- ¼ cup fresh oregano, chopped
- ½ cup white wine Salt and pepper
- Extra virgin olive oil (drizzle at end)
- In sauté pan, with high heat, add oil, garlic, and clams until garlic browns.
- Add tomatoes, wine, salt, pepper, and oregano, cover and cook 10 minutes or until clams open.
- In a separate pot, boil water; cook spaghetti al dente.
- Strain; pour clam sauce over pasta.
- Sprinkle with basil and extra virgin olive oil.
+ MARIA’S PORTUGUESE CLAM CHOWDER
- 18 medium clams (cherrystones) or two dozen littlenecks
- 1 linguiça or chouriço sliced ½ inch thick
- 6–8 medium potatoes peeled and quartered
- 2 onions sliced in quarters
- One 14-ounce can petite cut tomatoes
- Place the potatoes, onions, and chouriço in a medium pot; add enough water to cover these (you will add more water or clam juice later).
- Place the clams over the ingredients. Bring to a boil and steam the clams while the other ingredients are cooking.
- When all the clams are open, turn off the heat even if the other ingredients are not fully cooked. Let the ingredients cool enough to handle.
- Remove the clams from the shell and coarsely chop them.
- Dice the potatoes and onions into smaller pieces (soup-sized). I also cut the chouriço into smaller pieces. (In my part of Portugal it is considered an art to chop things into small pieces instead of large chunks.)
- Return all of the chopped ingredients to the pot.
- Add the can of petite cut tomatoes and either more water or clam juice. The amount of added fluid depends on how thick you prefer the chowder.
- Let the chowder gently boil until all is well cooked. Add more salt and some pepper depending on how the broth tastes.
+ RHODE ISLAND-STYLE CLAM CHOWDER
This recipe, from Johnson & Wales University students Alex Caccese and Michael Kuperman, won the 2014 Rhode Island Seafood Challenge, sponsored by Johnson & Wales University, Rhode Island Sea Grant, and the University of Rhode Island.
- 2.5 quarts (10 cups) fish stock
- 2.5 pints (5 cups) clam juice
- ½ cup onion, roughly chopped
- ½ cup celery, roughly chopped
- ¼ cup fennel, roughly chopped 2 cups quahogs
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Lightly sauté vegetables until translucent, add the fish stock.
- Bring to a boil, add clams and boil for 1 hour.
- After an hour, remove the clams from the liquid and set them aside for later Reduce the fish stock by half.
- Once the stock has reduced, strain out the vegetables. Add the clam juice and bring it back up to a boil; season to taste with salt and pepper.