Down at the beach on Buzzards Bay, every mottled rock and drift of sun-bleached shells holds the possibility of new adventure. Beach-combing with children along this cobble shore makes everything beneath your feet of immediate interest. Not just the shells - ranging from slipper shells in great abundance to the egg cases of skates and elusive cat's eyes - seek and hold our attention. A bit of burnt driftwood reveals to my daughter the wonder of drawing with charcoal on stone, and the opportunity to explore this truly ancient art form. Tumbled pebbles of granite and quartz offer hues and patterns of wide variety: purple and salmon and caramel and slatey green flecked with mica. There are sand fleas and green crabs and horse mussels between high tide and low, stones that make a satisfying splash, and sand between the toes.
Foraging for wild food along the shore is more rewarding than in many other habitats. The Northeast coast of North America was heavily utilized by Algonquin people, and their shell middens stand in testimony to the importance of shellfish in their diet. Especially between Cape Cod and New Jersey, the hard shelled clam known as the Quahog was of great significance. The name Quahog (KO-hog) is Algonquian in origin - derived from the Narragansett "poquauhock" - and indeed Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island is in the heart of quahog country. Down East of Cape Cod the waters are too cold for these bivalves to prosper, while further south along the Mid-Atlantic shore their predators like Blue Crab increase. In addition to their food value, the purple tinged edge of the quahog shell was the only source of the precious "black wampum" used as wealth by the native peoples of the Northeast. Today instead of belts of wampum, you can record casino credits on your "Wampum Card" at Foxwoods.
Here in the shallows of Buzzards Bay, there are quahog beds that are accessible to small people at low water, and yesterday my children and I used the time tested "bare-feet and fingers" method of quahog detection to great effect. Emily charmingly called them "Ho-gogs" when she was younger. Now equipped with mask and overlarge snorkel, she dips beneath the waves and clutches at the sand in search of clams. Two small zebra striped fish of a species unknown to me decided to dart around us while she had her mask on. Elias likes to hold quahogs and I unearthed a beauty out in the eel grass a bit further offshore. These clams can live over 40 years, and this big one was certainly in the largest "chowder" clam category. Quahogs have growth rings and those with fewer than four are considered too small too keep. As long as shellfish beds are not closed due to pollution or algal blooms, they are readily available for summertime feasting. Quahogs are tough but flavorful, and unlike steamers are best when baked and stuffed.
Baked stuffed quahogs are among the first foods I learned to cook myself, and are certainly the first wild catch I ever brought from sea to the table. The key to a stuffed clam is to go easy on the breadcrumbs. As with crab cakes, stuffed quahogs should be moist and flavorful with more shellfish than any other ingredient. As a rule, it takes three large cherrystone-sized quahogs to amply stuff one half shell. People love to eat them so you will need 50-75 clams to serve a crowd. I can usually dig that many in 45 minutes of careful searching. If you have the luxury of living by the shore, clams both soft shelled and hard are greatly improved if you let them filter overnight in fresh seawater. A burlap bag hanging from a mooring buoy or a plastic milk crate with a strap down lid will do the trick. Alternatively, you can keep them in a bucket for an hour or two and feed them cornmeal, which replaces the grit and serves to stuff them twice!
There are three basic steps in the kitchen. The first is to scrub the quahogs and steam them in beer. Reserve the liquid when they have opened and slip the poached clam into a food processor. Next, put it on your favorite setting -mine is frappe - until you have a wet mass of diced clams. Add a 1/4 cup of clam juice. Now, saute some onions and add whatever fresh spices you have on hand. The herb garden out by the hand pump at my Gran's had lovely thyme, Greek oregano and parsley and that is what I chose to use yesterday. Celery seed is an excellent addition, as is a seafood spice like Old Bay or our family's personal favorite, the glorious Wye River Seasoning Original Red, a superior spice mix from Maryland's Eastern Shore. The Portuguese add linguica, but the clams can stand alone.
Add these spices to the onions in the saute pan and dump in the clams. Slowly add unflavored bread crumbs until the mixture thickens enough to be shaped but retains its moisture. Turn off the heat and select and clean the largest half shells from your catch. Mound the stuffing into the shells, lay them on a baking sheet, drizzle with lemon juice or vermouth, and pop them in the over to bake for 10 minutes. This will crisp the top of the stuffing and leave them steaming hot and juicy.
Emily, my finicky eater, was not impressed, but Elias the omnivore has found yet another food he enjoys. It is absolutely heavenly fare, and in my humble opinion a far superior use for quahogs than chowder or clams casino. I have stuffed a Thanksgiving bird with quahogs and the results were breathtaking. I happened to have a pint of homemade pesto sauce on hand yesterday, and added a small amount to some of the clam stuffing this time around. Such lillies have never been gilded so decadently!