The Big Dig: 12 Clam Recipes

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Clams are summer food, not because you can’t dig them in the winter — people do — but because you don’t want to; working in damp, exposed mud flats during a windy low tide is no one’s idea of fun. But whether you dig your own or not, thoughts of fried-clam shacks and steamers and clambakes make it feel like clam season. And there are many options for cooks.

There are also many kinds of clams, but we can make two categories: soft-shell clams, which have thin, brittle shells and are typically called “steamers” (razor clams fall in this group); and hard-shelled clams, which are called by a thousand different names, including littlenecks, cherrystones, Manilas, cockles and quahogs (and which, of course, can be steamed, though are never called steamers). Soft-shells are almost always sandy and take more care, so these recipes are generally best with hard-shells, which require almost no work to get ready: Rinse or scrub off exterior sand, discard any that can be pulled apart easily with your fingers (or those with smashed shells), then wash in several changes of cold water — as you would salad greens — until all traces of sand are gone.

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Ribs, 3 Ways

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You cannot argue that ribs are seasonal. If you’re a fan, you want them as badly in January as you do right now. In fact, regardless of when “now” is, it’s as good a time to be cooking ribs as any, because ribs are equally good when prepared using almost any method of cooking. If there is a revelation to be found here, it is in the lightest and probably easiest recipe: ribs braised with anchovies and white wine — a dish in which the ribs can be eaten neatly, with knife and fork (and the sauce used to dress pasta or rice, or as a bread-soaker).

But there is a range of options. The standard, most straightforward method is two-step grilling with little more than salt and pepper — I offer more elaborate, though hardly difficult, variations. The most complicated recipe, which uses two cooking methods, is also by far the most time-consuming, but could be the most rewarding, at least for classicists. You smoke the ribs over indirect heat with sage and ginger (or other spices; see the variations). This can be done in advance, and it can be done simultaneously with direct-grilling something else, or even as the heat is dying down from a big fire.

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Spring Stews with Crunchy Crusts

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April is a transitional season, not only for weather but also for cooking. More produce begins to appear at farmers’ markets, and even supermarket asparagus begins to come from places closer than Peru. In most of the country, though, it’s not yet time for hot-weather eating; we still crave more than a light salad.

Light stews with springtime ingredients and satisfying crusts are the perfect dish for this time of year. These are neither the gut-busting braises that we’ve been eating all winter nor the cold soups that we’ll eat in a couple of months, but something in between. The most famous example of this kind of dish, of course, is chicken potpie. The version I offer here is a modern take that celebrates spring with the addition of peas (traditional) and asparagus (less so) and the exclusion of cream.

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Posted in Recipes

A Cappuccino for Public Safety

In New York, many things are referred to as jokes. The Van Wyck “Expressway,” for example, a coarsely paved road that has been under repair for as long as anyone can remember, is a joke. Compared with those of other world capitals, our mass transit system is a joke. And every now and then we’re reminded that underground is a bewildering mess of pipes, wires and fibers, the stuff that keeps the whole semi-anarchic mess running. That’s a joke, too, one that The Times called “a glaring example of America’s crumbling infrastructure.”

Although black humor is dear to New Yorkers, these are not funny jokes. No one likes the service interruptions and long waits for a train. But when gas pipes explode, as they did in East Harlem last month, killing sleeping innocents, it’s tough to remain stoical. This isn’t the Blitz or 9/11, events on which we could blame an embodiment of malevolence for random deaths of fellow citizens. Deaths like these are largely preventable.

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The Aliens Have Landed

In the ’30s, as Germany rearmed, we said, “Yeah, France can handle that.” Earlier this week, the Panzer Corps of climate change zoomed right around our Maginot line of denial, and we all became the retreating French.

The disaster we refused to acknowledge has arrived. And now, as then, many people are just giving up. “Oh, well,” countless friends and co-workers muttered Monday, “nothing to do now.”

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Not Enough Cooks in the Kitchen

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Last month I ate at Camino, a Cali-Med-Asian (that is, no-holds-barred) restaurant in Oakland, Calif. Camino is funky and open, and its look, which lacks pretense, offers little clue about the delights that await. There are long wooden communal tables for you and 29 of your closest friends, over which hang chandeliers that could pass for medieval drying racks. There’s live fire in a wide-open kitchen. The whole effect is even more casual than the upstairs at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, which was perhaps the original setting for tablecloth-free four-star food. It was also the place where Russ Moore, Camino’s chef and co-owner, worked for 20 years.

Moore is a self-described half Korean, half “New England white mix.” He grew up in Redondo Beach and, he says, “ate almost exclusively Asian food, except for fast food and garbage like that.” At some point, he did a three-month stint at L.A. Trade Tech, which he quit to take a job at “a crappy Italian restaurant.” He eventually moved to the Bay Area, where David Tanis, who was then a chef at Chez Panisse, took him on.

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Butter is Back

Julia Child, goddess of fat, is beaming somewhere. Butter is back, and when you’re looking for a few chunks of pork for a stew, you can resume searching for the best pieces — the ones with the most fat. Eventually, your friends will stop glaring at you as if you’re trying to kill them.

That the worm is turning became increasingly evident a couple of weeks ago, when a meta-analysis published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine found that there’s just no evidence to support the notion that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease. (In fact, there’s some evidence that a lack of saturated fat may be damaging.) The researchers looked at 72 different studies and, as usual, said more work — including more clinical studies — is needed. For sure. But the days of skinless chicken breasts and tubs of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! may finally be drawing to a close.

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The Magic of Masa

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If you’re interested in a serious project, you can make the best tortillas you’ve ever had by soaking and washing dried hominy — corn that has been treated with slaked lime — then grinding it to produce masa, or “dough.” Then you press out small discs and griddle them. Do that, and you’ll have my admiration.

Or you can do what so many people do: Start with masa harina, or “masa flour,” which you mix with water and a little fat. The dough takes five minutes to make (it’s better, but not essential, to let it rest for a while), and the pressing and griddling is simple and fun. If you buy a handy tortilla press, you can skip rolling or hand-pressing, but you don’t need one. (You can also buy freshly made masa, sold at many Latino supermarkets, which will also save you a step, and whose quality is usually quite high.)

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The Unhip, Unexpected Joys of Cruising

I have an embarrassing admission to make: I like cruises.

This is, of course, among the least hip things one can say. My friends look at me with incredulity. I feel the glare of the late David Foster Wallace, who in his 1996 Harper’s essay “Shipping Out,” later retitled “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” exposed cruises for the torturous, un-fun things they can be. So be it.

There is a qualification here: I have worked on cruises, as part of the “entertainment staff.” (Though I’m not very entertaining, I may actually be funnier than the so-called comedian.) This comes with the very real benefit of not paying, although there is the downside of having to work, and being bossed around a bit. So I may miss a few hours of time to myself in order to give a lecture or prep ingredients or demonstrate recipes. Or even get cornered by curious fellow passengers, asking things like “Oh, you’re the celebrity chef?” (Which I’m not, but close enough.) In short, I’m less busy than the servers, but more obligated than the average passenger.

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Exploiting California’s Drought

The San Joaquin Valley in California can be stunningly beautiful: On a visit two weeks ago, I saw billions of pink almond blossoms peaking, with the Sierra Nevada towering over all. It can also be a hideous place, the air choked with microparticles of unpleasant origins (dried cow dung, sprayed chemicals, blowing over-fertilized soil), its cities like Fresno and Bakersfield sprawling incoherently and its small towns suffering from poverty, populated by immigrants from places as near as Baja, Mexico, and as far as Punjab, India.

This year, much of its land is a dull, dusty brown rather than the bright green that’s “normal” here, even if “normal” is more desire than reality. With water, this is the best agricultural land in the world. Without it, not so much.

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Posted in Food Politics