It’s not often, er, ever, that I receive a box of East coast shellfish delivered to my California front door – that is until 10 days ago when a special delivery box arrived with 4 dozen pristine oysters and middle neck clams from Rappahannock River Oysters in Virgina. They were as fresh as could be, cold and moist, smelling of seaweed and sand. A taste of the East lay at my feet. This was simply not fair.
While I now live in California, and before that called Europe my home, I am a New Englander at heart. And I miss it. This is evident by how I gravitate to environments and sensations that remind me of a place I haven’t called home since 1991. I crave 4 distinct seasons, and reminisce wintry blizzards, humid summers, and the smell of fallen leaves with chimney smoke hanging in the air. I seek vignettes suspiciously similar to a traditional New England setting, old structures and neighborhoods steeped in history, creaking with wood, lined with cobblestones. And the sea must never be far away. Nothing epitomizes New England to me more than the seashore – especially on a chilly foggy day laden with mist, with the cries of seagulls and the clanging of buoys punctuating the sound of the wind and waves.
So there I was, a week ago, with 2 nets of memories before me in the form of shellfish, still moist from their beds, gritty with sand, smelling of brine and salt. It transported me to New England, and I knew that I would have to do them justice. I headed to my kitchen – the heart of our family home and life, no matter the coast or the country. The place where I go to recreate memories, carry on traditions and evoke sensations of time and place.
The oysters and clams were ridiculously fresh, and I knew I had to get to work fast. (OK, I admit a few oysters were instantly slurped straight up with a squeeze of lemon and dash of Tabasco. Hey, you would’ve too). I thought about how to create one recipe showcasing both oysters and clams, drawing inspiration from the East coast, while embracing my adopted West coast sensibilities – with a touch of the Mediterranean. I am a fan of chowders and cioppinos, and I decided on a stew, with layers of flavor and texture. It’s autumn after all, the season of layers – layers of clothing, layers of bedding and layers of nourishing, sating ingredients in our meals.
Each ingredient would stand out yet complement the whole of the stew, with a balance of sweet, smoke, heat and brine. I addressed each ingredient separately before uniting them, taking care to prevent a muddle. I browned the chorizo slices first for color and flavor. They would be added to the stew in the end, preventing softening and loss color by overcooking in the soup. Their legacy, the flavorful oil, remained in the pot infusing the stew with heat and smoke. I sautéed planks of sweet butternut squash in the oil. This step ensured the squash were thoroughly cooked and slightly caramelized. The chunks would be added in the end, like the chorizo, avoiding excessive mushiness and preserving their brilliant saffron color. Roasting the red pepper coaxed out its natural sugars and imparted another layer of smoky flavor to the soup. The clams cooked in the stew, opening and releasing their briny juices in the stock. Finally, I fried the oysters, first soaked in buttermilk and Sriracha, then rolled in cornmeal, ensuring super-crispy results with a playful bite. They would garnish the stew as a riff on croutons one might add to a Mediterranean seafood stew with a definite nod to the American south. A spoonful of saffron scented aioli added a creamy finish to the soup with the kick of heat.
Smoky Clam, Chorizo and Butternut Squash Stew with Saffron Aioli and Fried Oysters Croutons
1/2 cup mayonnaise (preferably homemade)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1/2 teaspoon Sriracha or hot sauce
16 shucked oysters
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon Sriracha or hot sauce
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
12 ounces Spanish-style chorizo sausage, sliced 1/2-inch thick
1 small butternut squash, cut in chunks, approximately 1 1/2-inch square, 1/2-inch thick
1 cup chopped yellow onion
1 sweet red pepper, roasted, peeled, cut in 1/4 inch julienne
2 large garlic cloves
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, with juice
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
12 to 16 middle neck clams
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Vegetable oil for frying
Fresh chopped Italian parsley leaves for garnish
For the aioli:
Whisk together all of the ingredients in a small bowl; set aside.
For the oysters:
Place the oysters in a small bowl. Whisk buttermilk and Sriracha in a separate bowl. Pour over the oysters to cover and set aside. Whisk the cornmeal, flour, salt and pepper together in another bowl and set aside.
For the stew:
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add sausage slices, in batches, and brown on both sides, turning once. Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel. Add the squash, in batches, to the skillet and pan fry until golden on both sides, turning once. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon oil from the pan. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and onion. Sauté until softened, about 2 minutes. Add red pepper, garlic, paprika and red chili flakes. Sauté until fragrant, 1 minute. Add wine and deglaze the pan, scraping up any brown bits. Add tomatoes, bay leaf and thyme. Simmer, uncovered, until somewhat thickened, 15 to 20 minutes. Add clams. Cover pot and cook, shaking occasionally, until clam shells open, about 10 minutes. (Discard any unopened clam shells). Add salt to desired taste.
While the stew is simmering, fill a large heavy saucepan with 2 inches of vegetable oil. Heat over medium-high heat until a deep fry thermometer reads 350 F. Remove the oysters from the buttermilk, shaking off any excess liquid. Dredge in cornflour. Fry in batches, without overcrowding, until golden and crispy, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain on a plate lined with a paper towel
Ladle the stew into warm serving bowls. Top each bowl with 4 oysters. Spoon a little saffron aioli into the center of the soup. Garnish with parsley. Serve immediately.