Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Ridiculously Small Bean Clam

A few years ago, I was on a trip to the beach with my wife and son (B wasn't around yet) and two of my oldest friends their daughter and son.  The kids being little creatures, they were pretty much confined to the edge of the tidal zone-  that few feet the waves lick, and occasionally cover, but where they never stay for long.  It being summer, life abounded in this patch of beach, and the most populous animal by far were tiny bean clams.  Millions of them.  As the kids gathered massive piles of them, Andy mentioned that he and Kristie had eaten very similar clams whilst in Spain.  I was intrigued, but that was that.  I ate them for the first time only last year, and since then I have been more than a little upset that I had ignored this wonderful food for so long.

In their live state- notice the stubby siphons
Of all the shellfish we have here, Donax variabilis, or bean clams (otherwise known as coquinas) are by far the easiest to harvest.  They live in tidally exposed areas of sandy beaches, where they huddle closely together in vast numbers.  They live only a few centimeters under the sand, and they are easy to spot. If you have ever found yourself on a Texas beach any time from late spring to late summer during an ebbing or flowing of the tide, you have seen them in the millions.  They look like little very polished triangular pebbles, though on closer inspection the hinge, foot, and siphons are typically clam-like.  Each is brilliantly colored and patterned, and no two match.  Color ranges from pink to brown to green to blue to orange...and everything in between.  Sometimes there are two competing colors.  Some bean clams have vertical stripes, some have horizontal stripes, and yes, some are plaid (hence the species handle variabilis). Happily, all sizes and colors taste good.

Members of the genus Donax occur all over the world, and are eaten over most of their range.  The French call them olives or haricots de mer.  The Italians call them tellina or arsella, while they are coquinas in Spain and hoy siap in Thailand.  They are eaten in all of those places.  According to Alan Davidson, some Italians claim that no other clam is capable of making as good a soup.  Bean clams are delicacies in those regions in which they occur- and rightly so.  Why do we not claim this humble clam as a delicacy of our own?

Commercial harvesting is simply not an option at this time.  Like so many other wonderful foods from the Gulf of Mexico, if you want to eat it, you must get it for yourself.  All you need to do is obtain a saltwater recreational fishing license and follow the rules (incidentally, I don't care for the broad term "recreational"- we fish for the table).  There is no limit specifically on the bean clam, but in general, a person may take up to 25 lbs. of clams a day (all it says is clams, and since the bean clam is a clam, I am going with the clam rule).   If there are between 200-300 clams to the pound (and I have never remembered to weigh them live to verify this), then 25 pounds is approximately is about 5000-7500 clams!

It would seem that taking that many clams at a time could in no way be a responsible (or possible) thing to do.  Normally when foraging for shellfish, I follow the rule of 3- take at most every third specimen of a particular species that I see.  Last week, I took my limit two days in a row, each day in less than 15 minutes and I estimate that I took maybe one one-hundredth of one percent of what we saw.  I mean that as literally as one may mean an estimate.  The numbers are staggering.  When they are thick, one can walk in a few inches of water for hundreds of feet thinking that the beach is covered in pebbles, not sand.  Those pebbles are bean clams.  And greater numbers are found a few feet off shore.

Bean clams are easy to spot on the beach, even if they are not lying exposed.  In the tidal zone, after the waves wash, look for millions of tiny holes or dents in the sand- each hole is maybe a centimeter across.  The holes will be tightly packed, and sometimes they are almost indistinguishable from each other.  Dig into the sand and you will find the coquinas a couple of centimeters below the surface (this is another advantage we have over the poor creature- its siphons are quite short, so it must stay very close to the surface to survive).  They dig very quickly in short bursts, but only in short bursts, so they will be just covered under the sand.  Sometimes colonies can be found by watching those "pebbles" on the beach dig themselves back in after a wave has exposed them.

The easiest harvest method involves simply an empty crawfish or oyster sack, two hands, and some waves.  If you don't have a crawfish or oyster sack, then any fine-mesh large sack will do.  A shovel could be used in place of hands, but hands are faster.  Open the sack, and then start dumping handfuls of the sand into the bag.  When the bag is full, tie it, and put it in the surf for a few seconds.  Let the waves run through, and when the bag is lifted out, all of the sand has gone, and the clams remain.  If you plan to be at the beach all day, harvest the clams as early in the morning as you can.  After you have your limit, tie the bag tightly, fasten it to some kind of frame (lashed together PVC, driftwood, etc) in the surf, so that the bag is always covered with water, but off of the bottom if at all possible.  Leave the bag there all day, then when you go home, your bean clams will be at least partially depurated (they tend to be a bit sandy- more on that later).

Now, on to cooking and eating.  In California about a century ago, a fishery developed for the bean clam they have over there.  The processors were not interested in the meat (remember these are tiny animals), but rather in the juice.  There are few clams that possess a sweeter nectar than the humble bean clam.  The liquid is opaque and cream-colored, slightly more viscous than common clam liquid.  It is uncommonly sweet.  In a very large pot, steam about 5 pounds of clams with a couple of tablespoons of water.  Pour off the resulting broth through a coffee filter.  Your first batch is done.   From the 50 pounds I gathered this weekend, I got right around a gallon of pure liquid.  Amazing in soups, sauces, chowders, anything.  According to Euell Gibbons, when camping at the beach, hot bean clam nectar is better than coffee to get the morning started correctly.

It has to be said at this point that a very simple way to enjoy them is to cook them whole with tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil, then eat the broth with rice or pasta, fishing out the larger of the bean clams for further eating.  I admit, that is amazingly good.

There is meat, though no one would be so patient as to pick through thousands of tiny clam shells to pick bits of meat weighing a few grams each.  It was only this last time around that I finally devised a decent system for extracting meats.  Forewarning- it's a bit tedious, though not nearly as much as the alternative.

to the right, a leaf of parsely; to the left about 20-30 clams
After the first extraction of liquid, you will need two large pots- the bigger the better.  Ideally, each pot will be big enough to hold all of the shells and enough water to cover by at least eight inches.  You will also need a large skimmer or sieve.  It needs to be as large as possible, while still small enough to fit into and strain the contents of the pots you've chosen. Also, and crucially: the skimmer must be able to nest in the top of the pots, no bigger, no smaller. A very generous amount of salt makes the whole deal a bit easier, but is not absolutely necessary.
each green dot is the gut of a clam
Fill one pot no more than half fulls with the clams.  Cover by half with water and bring to a strong boil.  Continue to cook at a brisk boil for about 10 minutes.  Do not worry about the meats toughening- beans clam meats are about the most forgiving shellfish meats, because even when very much overcooked, they are so small that they are still a bit soft.  Place the skimmer over the empty pot and pour through quickly but carefully- a lot of the meats will be floating in the water, and you want to wash all loose meats out, while keeping all shell in the bottom of the pot. Place the collected meats into a bowl. Pour the resultant broth into another container and put aside (this may be boiled down by half later with good results). Fill the empty pot with water.  If you are using salt, add and dissolve enough to make a potato float (the salt helps keep the more buoyant meats afloat at or near the surface).  Pour the water over the clams in the other pot.  Place the skimmer over the mouth of the empty pot.  Agitate the clams from the bottom of the pot, rubbing the clams through your hands, as if rubbing the skins off roasted peanuts.  Stir briskly, and then pour the broth again into the empty pot, being careful as before to pour quickly enough to trap all floating meats, but not so quickly to as to empty the shells into the skimmer.  If you successful with this, you should get close to a cup of meats with each pour...however don't count on being successful for awhile.  In all, it takes up to 10 repetitions to get the majority of the meats out.  Stop collecting when you've had enough, NOT when you have all the meats- you will never  get all the meat.

When you're done, soak the meats for at least a day in the clam liquid.  This will help work out any remaining sand (and they tend to sandiness if you don't pay attention).   After they have soaked, strain the liquid again through a coffee filter, and store.  The meats might have a little bit of sand still, but not too bad.  They are quite sweet, with a light and clean flavor which makes me think 'chlorophyll' every time I taste them.

The meats are great in chowder of course.  If you have extra clam or oyster shells around, they make great stuffing.  They also make good stuffing for small chickens or quail.  With a bit of egg, they are fritters.  With a bit more egg, you have hoy tawd.  Use them in pasta sauces.  Pickle them.  Salt and smoke them.  A colleague suggested ceviche, and I slapped myself for not thinking of it first.

You will probably not feel up to preparing them very often, but once a year or two, go down to the beach and get some bean clams.  They are, after all, delicacies.


  1. Great post PJ....miss you brother. I am opening a store right now on the beach in Wilmington, NC, thinking about you and yours. Andy.

  2. this summer!!!!
    lets make a feast of them and do it right!

  3. I recall gathering a bunch of these in Galveston once and cooking them with garlic and white wine. Real easy and simple and awesome beach food!

  4. Who would have thought! Great post. You should do a Youtube video of this.

  5. In Valencia-Spain we pan fry them on olive oil with lemon, garlic and parsley or open them in onion tomate,herbs,sauce. believe me, nothing matches that!

  6. What is the weight of a coquina clam