Photo by Jeanne RiceSometime after my then-future wife moved to California from Massachusetts, we stopped by Albertsons to pick up some steamers, only to find—to my wife's horror—that they were being sold dead. "The shells are open!!!" she exclaimed in three-exclamation-point horror, staring in disbelief at the tank. We left empty-handed. I think we ordered a pizza.
Shortly thereafter, we had lunch at the late, great Renaissance Café in Laguna Beach with one of her friends from New England and her Californian boyfriend. Seeing "steamed clams" on the menu, my wife was again dismayed when, instead of steamers, she received steamed cherrystone clams. We California men sat in silence as the women bemoaned our state's complete and utter incompetence vis-à-vis shellfish.
The time has come, then, to set California straight:
1) Shellfish are to be prepared alive, with the shells sealed. The creatures decompose quickly; buy them dead, and they will have gone bad by the time you cook them. They are to be tossed into boiling water (or the broth of your choice) so you can hear them scream as you cook them. You can buy them frozen, but that's inferior, and New England shellfish snobs will snicker at you behind your back.
2) If the shellfish haven't been farm-raised, you may want to feed them cornmeal in a saltwater solution before cooking. This helps them spit out the sand in their innards. Use kosher salt; although the shellfish aren't kosher, the iodine in regular salt will kill them before they hit the boiling water. Do this for only a few hours, as this is a poor substitute for real seawater and their time on this earth is limited from the moment you bring those babies home.
3) "Steamers" are soft-shell clams with a membrane. As they heat in the broth of your choice, the shells open.
4) Do not fear the membrane. The membrane is not your enemy. After cracking open the shell, grasp the membrane at the loose end and pull back to the base. Pinch the membrane off at the neck while simultaneously pulling out the meat. (This is similar to removing a condom.) Discard the membrane. Dip the meat in clam broth (left over from cooking the steamers) to rinse out any sand remaining in the shells. Butter liberally.
5) "Quahogs" are hard-shell clams and are much larger than steamers. There is no membrane. You will not find one no matter how hard you look. Just pinch out the meat and chow down.
6) Rather than attempting any of this on your own, go to Santa Monica Seafood, as they're the only people on this coast who actually understand any of this.
Santa Monica Seafood is the antithesis of most fish butchers. It's clean, well-lit and the dead carp do not appear to be leering maniacally at you, which is good because I have childhood traumas from seaport fishmongers that prevented me from eating fish for years.
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Here they have row after row of full crabs, fish patties and, of course, shellfish—although they persist on calling steamers "soft-shell clams" rather than their proper, colloquial name.
For those uninterested in actually cooking, Santa Monica Seafood has a wide variety of seafood to go, including grilled fish tacos, grilled salmon, Dungeness crabmeat salad, and even crab-cake sandwiches, which are the best I've ever had on this coast but are still vastly inferior to my grandmother-in-law's homemade crab cakes.
Honestly, if a large number of cooks from New England moved to Orange County and started shopping here, OC would become a culinary mecca overnight. But even in philistine Californian hands, Santa Monica Seafood remains the best source for seafood around.
Santa Monica Seafood, located at 154 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, is open Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (888) 762-3663. Steamers are $5.99 per pound. Lunch for two, less than $15. No alcohol. All major credit cards accepted.