It's so appropriate to welcome Elizabeth Zelvin on Mother's Day. Liz is a loving mom and grandmother and an amazing, multi-talented woman. She's a New York psychotherapist, a three-time Agatha Award nominee, and author of the mystery series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, starting with Death Will Get You Sober. The third book, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, is just out, and “Death Will Tank Your Fish” was a 2011 Derringer Award nominee for Best Short Story. Liz has also just released a CD of original songs, Outrageous Older Woman. Happy Mother's day, Liz!
One of the best kept secrets in the fashionable Hamptons is a beautiful peninsula called Gerard Drive, a narrow road winding its way between the wetlands of Accabonac Harbor and the open expanse of Gardiners Bay. On a clear day, it looks as if you could throw a stone to Gardiners Island, the private domain on which they say the pirate Blackbeard buried his treasure. The Gardiner of the day caught him at it, captured and sent him off to England to be hanged, while the family has been eating off the buccaneer’s gold plates to this day. Or so they say.
If you meet any oldtimers while you’re getting your shellfish permit at the Town Clerk’s office in East Hampton, they won’t tell you where to find the shellfish. But if you run or walk your dog or bike or rollerblade on Gerard Drive, you can’t help seeing clammers, sometimes almost dryshod on the mud flats at low tide and sometimes waist deep and balancing precariously as they reach into the mud under their feet for the makings of a classic chowder. It looks so easy....
I discovered the hard way, ie, by becoming eligible for Medicare one day at a time, that shellfish permits are actually permanent and free to seniors. (You spring chickens will have to get one every year and pay a fee for it.) I kept meaning to go and use it, along with the clam gauge that indicates when a clam is too small to keep legally. But the tide table for Accabonac Harbor is another well kept secret (go on, try to google it—you’ll get the highs and lows for Three Mile Harbor, not at all the same thing), and since they built a bridge (or dug a channel, which was the important part) letting water from the bay go in and out more easily at a point about a mile from the mouth of the harbor (between the tip of Gerard Drive and the delightfully named Louse Point), the mud flats only get uncovered when low tide is very low indeed.
I run three miles along that drive every day I can when I’m out there. The air is filled with birdsong, wildflowers abound, deer and rabbits dart across the road, and the sparkling air and glinting water demonstrate why artists rave about the East Hampton light. I’m always looking for clues to that extra-low tide, and last Columbus Day weekend, a three-day stretch of absolutely perfect weather, I found it. Ospreys and herring gulls have no trouble catching seafood, so why should I? I gathered up my gear and permit (couldn’t find the clam gauge) and made ready to hunt the wild clam.
Now came the hard part: getting my hubby to come with me. His idea of paradise is a big chair, an open window with the breeze blowing through it, and a good book. Well, his real idea of paradise is the streets of New York City. But he was there, and I wasn’t letting him off. I had to share the fun, didn’t I? And what are husbands for if not to carry the rake, the bucket, and, one hopes, the clams?
Alas, the clams did not cooperate. We spent a couple of hours stooped over and burrowing in the muck with toes and fingernails. Not a clam. A couple stationed maybe fifty yards from us were literally raking them in. “This is a good spot!” the woman kept exclaiming. Unfortunately, clam etiquette forbids poaching on someone else’s spot. But I kept inching closer. A couple of young women came splashing out, politely avoided the first couple’s spot, and quickly found another that yielded not only clams but a large oyster and a crab or two.
My husband was not a happy clammer. Nor was I—but I didn’t want to go home without clams. It happens that our favorite gourmet farm market, whose clam chowder is a perfect 10, didn’t make it at all last season, and we were both feeling chowder deprived. You need about three dozen good sized clams to make a pot of chowder. That wasn’t happening. Finally, the two young women kindly offered to share their spot. Within minutes, my husband got a clam. One. To make a long story short, we ended up with half a dozen clams, two medium-sized and the other four—well, let’s say it’s just as well we couldn’t find our clam gauge and that the Marine Patrol didn’t happen to come along.
Did I make clam chowder? You betcha. It was kind of like the stone soup of folklore—putting a big nothing in the pot and adding all the other ingredients. But was it good? It was delicious.
East-Hampton-is-practically-New-England Clam Chowder
(Note: Real New England clam chowder is made with melt-in-your-mouth soft shell clams. New Englanders call the clams I’m talking about quahogs.)
Liz's Clam Chowder
3 dozen fresh hard shell clams
water to cover
bacon or pancetta
1 large onion
1-2 large potatoes, peeled
Make sure the clam shells are clean (and not soapy). Put them in a large pot and cover with water. Cover the pot and steam the clams until they open. Remove the clams, take them out of the shells, and put them aside. Discard the shells.
Chop or dice the bacon, onion, carrots, celery, and potatoes. Cook the bacon in a hot skillet, then add the onions and cook until they’re golden. Bring the clam broth to a boil. Add the carrots, celery, and potatoes, lower the heat, and simmer until the carrots and potatoes are soft. (You can sautée the carrots and celery first along with the onion if you like.)
Chop the clams and stir them into the broth. Season with salt, pepper, and dill to taste.
At this point, you’ve done the work. You can put the soup in a container in the fridge (or freezer, if you want to) and use it later. Or you can finish the job and eat it right away. Take the pot off the heat and make sure it is no longer boiling. Stir in heavy cream. (The woman I learned this recipe from said to use 1 part cream to 2 parts clam broth. I think it’s a judgment call, depending on how thin you like your chowder. It will be thinner than most commercial and restaurant chowders, which are thickened with corn starch. Bad.)
Float a couple of pats of butter on the top until they melt, and you’re done. Be careful not to let the chowder boil once you’ve added the cream and butter. Serve hot.
Visit Liz at her website www.elizabethzelvin.com and her music website, www.lizzelvin.com. Liz blogs on Poe’s Deadly Daughters and SleuthSayers.