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|
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!
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).
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|
|each green dot is the gut of a clam|
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.