Summer is the season for fresh seafood fried to perfection, and these New England specialities are off the hook.

A masterful street food, Rhode Island clam fritters (aka clam cakes) aren’t cakes at all — the best are briny Southern hush puppies. Think clam beignet; crispy and golden brown on the outside, pillowy and light inside, with savory bits of chewy minced clams and steam rising from the first bite. I was introduced to them as a counter girl at the Kool Kone in Wareham on Route 6, a tired, narrow strip of road that once was the main drag from New York to Cape Cod. (“Is this the way to Wareham?” the old yaw goes. “I don’t know, ma’am, but they look alright to me.”) My first week on the job, making an ice cream sundae, I spilled a gallon bucket of walnuts on the filthy floor. In tears, I apologized to my bosses, an elderly couple who worked like dogs all summer (he was the jokester at the fryolator, she was the bad cop at the window tending the girls), then packed up their motor home and drove to Florida for the winter. “Don’t worry,” she said, chewing spearmint gum between her front teeth, “You’ll rinse them, dry them off, and put them back in the bucket.”

Rhode Island Clam Cakes photo copyright Keller + Keller Photography

Rhode Island Clam Cakes. Photo © Keller + Keller Photography, excerpted from Fresh Fish

A Few Quick Tips on Cleaning Clams

If you bought clams at the market, they’re clean. But if you bought them from a guy on the dock at Vineyard Haven who had them in a bucket of seawater, ask him if he’s cleaned them. And if you’ve canoed out to a sandy spit in your bathing suit and spent the afternoon at low tide in the muck digging clams, you definitely want to clean them. Now what do you do?

Bring them home in a bucket submerged in several inches of seawater. (If you’re in a car driving home and it’s scorching hot, put the clams in a cooler and cover with seawater.) Once home, quickly scrub the outside of the shells with a stiff brush under cold running water — fresh water kills clams — to get rid of the mud and grit (or scrub them in a second bucket of seawater). Hardshelled clams don’t have much grit; it’s the soft-shelled clams you need to purge, and this is how you do it:

Put them in a container and submerge them again in seawater — either the real thing, or make up a mixture of 3 tablespoons of sea salt (see? sea salt really does come in handy) per liter of water for at least an hour and up to 20 hours (longer than that they’ll suffocate and die when the oxygen runs out in the water). If they are particularly gritty, you may want to change the water.

I know this sounds bossy, but use a non-reactive container — galvanized will kill them. Tupperware is good. You want to keep them cool (or close to the temperature of the sea they came from), so depending on the temperature, put them in the refrigerator or a cooler. I put them in a wire basket in the bay and tie them to a mooring near shore. (And you may want to cover the container: clams will spit water at you. They get the last word.)

Give them one final quick rinse before cooking or shucking. Discard any clams that don’t “clam up” if tapped.

Rhode Island Clam Cakes

Serve the clam cakes with Tabasco sauce, lemon, and tartar or remoulade sauce. They refry well the next day, too: just pop them in hot oil for a minute or two.

Serves 4–6

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon fresh chives
  • 1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley
  • 2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 cups cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup beer (needn’t be fancy)
  • 1½ cups minced clams
  • ½ cup clam broth
  • Vegetable oil for frying

Directions

  1. Mix together the chives, parsley, Old Bay, salt, pepper, flour, baking powder, garlic, and cayenne. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and beer, then add the clams and broth. Mix in the dry ingredients and stir to combine.
  2. In a heavy skillet, heat oil (2 to 3 inches deep) to 360° F (185° C). When the oil is hot, drop a tablespoon of batter at a time and fry until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Fry just a few at a time. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

Recipe excerpted from Fresh Fish © 2016 by Jennifer Trainer Thompson. Photos © Keller + Keller Photography. All rights reserved.

Jennifer Trainer Thompson

Jennifer Trainer Thompson is the author of 18 books, including Fresh FishThe Fresh Egg Cookbook, and Hot Sauce! Nominated for three James Beard Awards, she has been featured… See Bio

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