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Native Cooking

We live one mile inland from a large state beach. The other day the wind must have been just right because I caught a major whiff of funky salt sea air. Years ago, my family spent every summer on Cape Cod; the place we stayed is now a national seashore, but then it was direct ocean, dunes and beach shacks. That familiar smell filled every breath we took. Going home in the fall, we still had hints of mud flats and salt air on Narragansett Bay, but it just wasn’t as pretty as the ocean or dunes in Truro on the Cape. Every time that aroma comes by my nose, I think about clams!

Clams are the most versatile seafood – clam cakes, chowder, steamers, raw, broiled, fried and stuffed. In times past, whole villages of people would move to the seashore for the summer, build wigwams and settle in to enjoy the change of scene. The varieties of seafood made this sojourn quite pleasurable. Shellfish wrapped in seaweed and baked over hot coals right on the beach became the clambake. All manner of seafood was smoked and dried for winter use. Some people cannot eat shellfish, an ancient allergy for some inland people, like the Plains, for example. I hope this doesn’t affect you or yours.

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<b>Clam Fritters</b>

Just another version of clam cakes, but fritters are flatter and can be served with other items on a plate.

2 cups large, fresh ground quahogs (sea clams)

1 cup flour

1 onion, chopped fine

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon paprika

Fill a heavy skillet with 1/4 inch of vegetable oil. Mix dry ingredients together in a medium bowl, then add wet clams and eggs. Drop batter by heaping teaspoons into hot oil. Brown on both sides, drain and serve.

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All along the East Coast there are seafood shacks, and most of them have clam cakes somewhere on the menu. Clam cakes are like frybread: everyone has their own recipe, and of course, everyone’s own is the “best.” There was a clam cake shack in Massachusetts somewhere and we had to plan our travel to grandma’s around the hours they’d be open. The place looked no bigger than two outhouses put together, with a little red roof and a big wooden awning window that closed it all down tightly at night. You got six clam cakes in a brown paper bag for 50 cents. Salt them right there, roll down the top of the bag and shake: then you had a greasy brown paper bag with heaven inside.

<b>Clam Cakes</b>

1 10-ounce can chopped clams and juice or equivalent fresh chopped clams and juice

1-1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 egg white

Pinch of each: salt, white pepper, sugar

Store clams and juice in fridge to chill. Use a deep-sided pan, cast iron or other, and put in about 1/2-inch of vegetable oil. Mix ingredients together in a medium bowl to form a thick, lumpy batter. Heat oil until it “spits” when you flick a drop of water into it (be careful). Drop batter into hot oil by heaping teaspoonfuls. Cook until golden.

It only takes a couple of minutes, so don’t go away! Cakes should turn over once by themselves, or may need a little help. Drain and devour. You may want to sprinkle a little salt on them. If you think the batter is too thick, add just a small amount of ice water.

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<b>Notes and Tips</b>

* Clams have to be cleaned of sand and other debris. The best way to do this is to let them soak overnight in the fridge in a saltwater solution. Since they are still alive, this gives them a chance to let the sand and dirt work through their own filtering system.

* Throw out any clams that are open when you get them. If you aren’t sure, tap on the shell. It will close if it’s alive. When steaming clams, if any do not open at all, discard it.

* To eat clams on the half-shell, my own personal favorite, you need a clam knife. Freeze the clams for about 15 minutes before opening. This makes it easier to get the knife between the top and bottom shell and loosen up the muscle so it will open. Some people (not me), have a real knack for opening shellfish and can do it quickly.

* It is best to buy clams from a fish market or dockside shop. Once in a great while, supermarkets have viable-looking product, but I still ask where they came from when buying clams.

* When making homemade chowder, use bottled clam juice and add the clams, fresh or canned, toward the end of cooking time so they won’t have a chance to get too tough or too soft. This also makes the chowder taste fresher.

* Potatoes are a staple of chowder. A lot of people use onion and celery along with them. I saute the onions and celery a little bit first before adding them to the pot. A single strip of cooked and crumbled bacon adds a nice smoky flavor to chowder as well.

<i>I want to thank all of you who have sent in suggestions and ideas to NativeCooking

@aol.com. I am always learning things. Please let me know what YOU want to see for recipes in this column. Dale Carson is the author of three books: “New Native American Cooking” (temporarily out of print), “Native New England Cooking” and “A Dreamcatcher Book.” For ordering information write to Dale Carson, P.O. Box 13, Madison, CT 06443 or e-mail NativeCooking@aol.com.