In the United States the dish is commonly prepared with a kind of shellfish called steamers, a somewhat generic name that usually refers to a small soft-shell clam harvested and served along the East Coast and in New England. Steamers are so named because of the way are most often prepared.
Hard shell clams, sometimes known as quahogs, can also be steamed. They are categorized by size— the smaller ones are called littlenecks, medium-sized ones topnecks, and the larger ones cherrystones.
The clams used for steaming are usually cooked live. If in a hard shell, the clam should be closed when purchased and should open after being cooked. Soft shell clams are open slightly (agape) while alive. Larger chowder clams are not typically used for steaming.
Clams are steamed according to many different recipes in different regions. In China, steamed clams can be served with eggs. In Thailand steamed clams are served with lemongrass, ginger, or herbs. In France they are often cooked with white wine, onion, garlic, shallots, and butter. A huge plate of steamed clams in Restaurant el Club in San Felipe, Mexico, costs 45 pesos, according to a 2007 travel guide. Steamed clams are also eaten in Japan ("Oosari" are large steamed clams), and many other countries with large coastlines.
The New England clam bake is a traditional preparation that includes clams layered with other ingredients such as corn, lobster, mussels, crabs, potatoes, and onions in a metal bucket. The layers are separated by seaweed and steamed over a fire outdoors and served family style as at a picnic.
To prepare steamed clams, live clams are rinsed carefully to remove sand and grit and then cooked in a large kettle of water with salt added. They are served with broth and melted butter for dipping. Lemon juice, beer, garlic, shallots, parsley, and wine are sometimes used for flavoring and to season the broth.
Steamers may be served simply. In the open shell the clam is given a few quick dips in broth to remove any lingering sand before being dipped in melted butter and eaten.
Notable accounts of steamed clams
In Florida, a couple were halfway through a $10 plate of steamed clams when they found a rare, iridescent purple pearl estimated to be worth thousands of dollars.
Steamers are praised by many chefs, for instance Jacques Pépin: "Plentiful and inexpensive during the summer, especially in the Northeast, steamers are one of the great treats of the season." They are found in shallow waters from the Arctic Ocean to North Carolina, and have been found in Florida and Europe. They can be dug up by amateur clam diggers. Steamers have been transplanted to the West Coast and are available from San Francisco to Vancouver, Canada. They are sold in tanks and can also be shipped directly to consumers, but their shells sometimes get cracked.
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