Grilled oysters are a dime the proverbial dozen this time of year. (Not that I’m complaining.)
But it’s not every day that you experience fresh clams hot off the grill.
Aaron Oster finds this as frustrating as I do. So on taking charge of the kitchen of what has become my new favorite neighborhood restaurant in Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, the chef of the Port Hunter promptly made hickory-grilled clams with preserved lemon and jalapeno one of his signature dishes.
“I grew up in Rhode Island and Connecticut: I’ve been eating clams on the half shell my whole life,” Oster says. “The salty briny sea flavor is irresistible.”
It was a flavor he never forgot — not when he lived in Italy as a participant in the WWOOF (World Wild Opportunities in Organic Farming) program. (The reverence he observed in Italians of all ages for their 2,500 plus year-old cuisine inspired him to become a chef.) Not during the 10 years he worked in New York for such respected restaurateurs as Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque and Cesare Casella of Beppe and Il Buco Alimentari. “Port Hunter may seem like a bar food/fish house sort of restaurant,” Oster says. “But the food I do here — even the fish tacos — are Italian in spirit.”
He shucks a half-dozen littleneck clams dug locally the previous evening. He lines them up on a sizzle plate, topping each with a chunky vinaigrette that contains only three ingredients: preserved lemons, jalapeno peppers, and extra virgin olive oil. He grills the clams over a hot fire just long enough to poach the shellfish in their natural juices. A wisp of wood smoke curls over the edge of shells, imparting the hunger-inducing scent of hickory. The clams are ready in two minutes — the salty pickled lemon and spicy jalapeno give you a whole new perspective on shellfish.
“Clams prepared this way make me think of the girl who lived next door you played softball with every day growing up,” Oster says. “One day she puts on a dress and high heels and all of the sudden she’s a woman. You fall head over heels in love.”
To make the Port Hunter’s grilled clams, you’ll need fresh littlenecks — the smallest members of a hard shell clam family that includes cherrystones, topnecks, and quahaugs (chowder clams). Ideally, you’ll dig them yourself, using a time-honored method I’ve come to call the “Katama Bay clam dance.” You stand in shallow water and rotate your feet back in forth like you’re doing the Twist, wriggling your toes to feel for clamshells. When you find one, you pull it up with your “bear paw” (a six-prong clam rake.)
Barring the option of digging your own clams fresh, buy them from a fishmonger that turns its inventory often. Make sure the shells are tightly closed and the clams smell briny not fishy.
You’ll need to know about one special ingredient to make this recipe — preserved lemon — a traditional Moroccan condiment made by pickling fresh lemon with salt. Imagine the vivifying bite of fresh lemon juice and rich salty tang of your favorite umami ingredient, like pickles or anchovies, and you’ll understand why you need to make preserved lemon part of your flavor arsenal right now — if it isn’t already. Preserved lemon is easy to make at home. Alternatively, you can buy bottled preserved lemon at gourmet shops or online.
Oster grills his clams on an Cookshack professional gas grill that has an ingenious pellet smoker built under the grate. At home, you’d toss a handful of soaked hickory chips on the bed of coals in your charcoal grill or use a smoker box or smoker pouch on your gas grill. Oster serves the grilled clams on a metal plate with a sprinkling of minced chives as the only embellishment.
If you happen to be on Martha’s Vineyard, the Port Hunter is located at 55 Main St. in Edgartown. It’s a lively space with soaring brick walls, butcher block tables, and a convivial bar running the length of the dining room.
Otherwise, here’s how to make them at home.
TRY GRILLING SEAFOOD WITH THESE PRODUCTS!