Growing up in Maine, I was used to pretty simple seafood preparations. In Maine (and particularly in the 1980s), most of the clams, mussels, and shrimp my family cooked at home was of the “steamed” or “fried” variety. I grew to think of most shellfish not as an ingredient to be combined with other things into complex dishes, but as a simple main course that allowed the focus to be on the natural briney sweetness of the seafood.
When I moved away to attend college in New Haven, my view of seafood was forced to change. Southern and shoreline Connecticut cuisine combines the natural resources of the sea with a heavy-handed influence from the area’s Southern Italian immigrants, resulting in red sauce preparations of seafood the likes of which I had never seen. Lobster fra diavolo, served in a spicy, acidic tomato sauce with tons of red pepper. Big platters of deep-fried calamari, their crispy tentacles tossed with hot cherry peppers. And this: Clams Casino, an old-school appetizer combining baked clams, bacon, garlic, and breadcrumbs.
Often, Clams Casino is a pretty depressing affair. In a typical recipe, the bacon and clams are chopped into bits, before being combined with giant mounds of flavorless Ritz cracker breadcrumbs, which never seem to cook through and can remain kind of gummy after cooking. Our recipe places the emphasis of Clams Casino much more firmly where it belongs: On the bacon and the clams. We skip the breadcrumbs altogether, leaving the clams whole, bathed in butter and white wine, and protected from overcooking by a blanket of thick-cut bacon.
A note about clam selection: large cherrystone clams are the most impressive visually (and require more bacon, which is always a bonus), but large clams aren’t for everyone. They can be intimidating and a little bit tough to chew. If you’re feeding a mixed group and you’re not sure if everyone is a clam lover, stick with the littlenecks. If you have trouble shucking the clams, steam them for about a minute in a shallow water bath until they just open, then use a knife to cut the two muscles on each side of the clam holding the shell together.
- 3-4 strips thick-sliced bacon
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 red bell pepper, finely chopped
- 2 shallots, minced
- 3 large garlic cloves, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/3 cup dry white wine
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 4 tablespoons shaved Parmesan, divided
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 12 medium (2 – 3 inch) cherrystone or 18 large (1-1/2 – 2 inch) littleneck clams, shucked, bottom shells reserved
In a skillet, cook bacon over low heat until bacon until barely cooked through, but not brown and crispy. Transfer to paper towels to drain.
Pour excess bacon fat off of skillet, and add butter, bell pepper, shallots, garlic, and oregano. Cook until onions are translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Add wine and Worcestershire sauce and cook until wine is mostly evaporated, about two minutes more. Remove from heat and let cool,Add the bell pepper, shallots, garlic, and oregano to the same skillet and saute until the shallots are tender and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until it is almost evaporated, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat. When cool, add 3 tablespoons of the Parmesan, mix, and set aside.
Preheat broiler, and arrange rack about 8-inches below broiler element or flame. Line a large baking sheet with foil, then arrange bottom halves of each clam shell. Place a shucked clam into each shell, followed by about a half a teaspoon of the butter and vegetable mixture. Tear or cut bacon into strips large enough to cover and top each clam. Broil until clams are cooked through and bacon is brown and crispy, about 4-5 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan and serve.