"Um, honey, why is there clam juice dripping all over the floor?" asked my wife.
"Oh no! Not my clam juice!" I cried, noticing, in the near-final moments, a crack in the bowl that threatened our meal.
More on that crisis later.
First, about those clams. These are the shellfish jewels of the Jersey coast - briny, tender, and clean, from the sandy beds of the state's southern bays. Dozens of seafood stores sell them, of course, but this was an opportunity to finally visit Woodburn Clams & Crabs, a weathered old seafood shack I'd long heard about (but always rocketed past) just off the Garden State Parkway's northbound exit in Somers Point. Set back from the road on a gravel lot, with Sluice Creek splashing right up to its rear, the shop has changed little since Sid Martin and his late cousin, Bob Woodburn, opened four decades ago.
"You can call me Woodburn if you want," says Martin. "Everyone does."
It's a small shop that changes its offerings daily depending upon what local suppliers bring each morning, from flounder to perch and even blowfish, plus clams, of course, of which Martin estimates he sells about 10,000 a week during summer. The prices are good, at $24 per 100 littlenecks (cheaper than the Ocean City Super Fresh). But Martin scores extra points with his salty old-school charm and well-seasoned cooking advice.
"You'll want some of these here bull-nose chowder clams to make your broth," he says, holding up some larger quahogs about 3 inches across. The more delicate littlenecks, he says, are to gussy up the finished dish. "They don't have a lot of meat or juice."
I'll heed Martin's advice on steeping my initial broth from those chowder clams, but stop short on his instruction to thicken the final sauce with a cornstarch slurry. The secret to my clam pasta is not so much about making the sauce stick as learning to coax from it deeper layers of flavor and texture.
With such a surprisingly small amount of water in the bottom of the steamer pot to begin with, perhaps only an inch, the process at its essence is one of the most beguilingly simple magic tricks in cooking. A bit of heat, a splash of wine, and some aromatics are all it takes for those clams to release a surprising amount of juice in 15 minutes flat. Building the flavors, though, is the tricky part with a sauce that can easily end up watery. Along with the usual wine, garlic, onions, and herbs, I love the earthiness of bay leaves and a flicker of chile-flake heat. Once you've removed the steamed-open large clams, then popped the little guys open, I strain that juice through a paper-towel-lined sieve (no grit at this party, please). Then I intensify the broth by reducing it by half. For that desired noodle cling, I whisk cold butter into the hot broth just before tossing it all together. Al dente pasta is best, because as the linguine continues to soften, it soaks up flavor like a sponge.
Bringing this dish to the next level, though, is all about textures. I love presenting the clam two ways - one part minced and sauteed with onions and garlic, to be spread atop the dish, and then those tender littlenecks, still cradled in their yawning shells, and scattered like butterflies across the bowl. The final touch - toasted breadcrumbs mixed with lemon zest - adds the spark of crunch and citrus that brings each bite to life.
The lemon zest is a secret key to my garlic bread, too, cutting through the richness of the butter and Parmesan mixture that gets spread atop the sliced-open Rando Bakery bread in two liberal layers. The first is left a few minutes to melt deep into the bread after a light pretoast. The second layer - topped generously with fistfuls of grated Parmesan for more texture - becomes the crust that bubbles and browns and fills the rental unit with a zesty smell that could rouse even the most beach-weary crowd.
But be careful not to let that garlic bread burn. It can happen quickly, and I know from experience that the final movements of this meal can be hectic, to say the least. That is especially true in an unfamiliar kitchen like our Shore rental this year, where the bowl I chose to strain that gorgeous broth into turned out to have a little crack, which became a big crack, which suddenly became a gusher of my liquid gold.
"Get me a bowl! Get me a pot! We've gotta save the juice!" I yelled to no one in particular, but loud enough that a bowl appeared - and quickly enough to save the dinner.
With my friends and family gathered round our platters of seaside bounty, the aromas of toasted garlic and briny clams tickling our appetites, we raised a glass in toast. After a busy week of restaurant dining, we could finally savor a "relaxing" meal at our vacation home.
Craig LaBan's Jersey Shore Clam Pasta
Makes 6 servings
12 large steamer clams, carefully scrubbed under cold water
1 cup dry white wine
6 garlic cloves, divided (4 left whole, 2 finely sliced)
1 large onion, divided (2/3 sliced into half-moons, 1/3 finely chopped)
5 bay leaves
10 sprigs parsley, divided (5 left whole, 5 finely chopped)
3/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes, divided (1/2 teaspoon for boiling clams, 1/4 teaspoon for sauteed clam meat)
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt for pasta water
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
50 littleneck clams, carefully scrubbed under cold water
4 tablespoons butter
1 pound linguine
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large pot, bring about 1/2-inch of water to boil. While water warms, zest the lemon, then cut in half, reserving zest in a dish. Once water boils, place the large steamer clams in the bottom of pot, carefully so as not to break the shells. Add wine, garlic cloves, sliced onions, bay leaves, whole parsley stems, pepper flakes, black peppercorns, and the lemon halves, giving them a gentle squeeze before dropping them in. Cover and cook over high heat until the clams open wide, about 15 minutes. Remove pot from heat and remove clams and their shells and set aside to cool.
2. Add littlenecks to the pot of rendered juice from larger clams, close the lid, and steam until they open. These will cook more quickly, from 5 to 8 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, bring another large pot of water for pasta to the boil with teaspoon of salt. Lightly brown bread crumbs in a hot oven (if using broiler, be careful not to burn them). Blend crumbs with lemon zest and chopped parsley, then set aside.
4. Once littlenecks are done and shells are all open, carefully remove to a plate and cover with foil, then strain the clam juice into a large bowl through a sieve lined with paper towels to remove all the grit. Return the juice to a sauce pot and reduce over high heat by about one-half.
5. While clam juice is reducing, remove the large clams from their shells and mince, discarding any dark belly parts if desired (not necessary, but a matter of taste), and reserve. Remove and mince some of the littleneck meat as well, but retain about 30 littlenecks whole in their shells for presentation (or about 5 whole clams for each diner).
Once clam juice is reduced, remove from heat, let cool for one minute, then swirl in chunks of cold butter. Set aside in a warm place on the stove (but off the flame).
6. Add pasta to water and cook according to instructions.
7. In a saute pan, heat two tablespoons of olive oil until it smokes. Add minced onions, sliced garlic, and 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes until onion turns translucent. Add minced clam meat and saute well, until fragrant and browning around the edges. Set aside.
8. For final assembly, once pasta is cooked al dente, drain and place in a large serving platter with sides or a large bowl. Toss with remaining tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Add as many whole littlenecks in their shells as you can comfortably fit back into the pot with the clam juice and swirl to coat and warm the clams, then carefully strain the juice over the pasta. Toss the pasta to coat evenly in the juice. Spread the minced clam mixture over the center of the pasta, then decorate the sides with the whole clams. Scatter with lemony herbed bread crumbs, and serve.
Per serving: 478 calories, 11 grams protein, 64 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 17 grams fat, 76 milligrams cholesterol, 584 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Craig LaBan's Garlic Bread
Makes 6 servings
2 baguettes, split lengthwise, then sliced into quarters
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
8 garlic cloves, finely minced
3/4 cup grated Parmesan, divided
Zest of one lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Set broiler to high. While oven heats, blend together butter with garlic, 1/2 cup of Parmesan, lemon zest, and salt. Mix well.
2. Place baguettes cut side up on a cookie sheet and toast under the broiler until lightly browned.
3. Remove baguettes and, using a rubber spatula, smear about half the butter over the baguettes. Let rest two minutes, until all the butter is absorbed, then spread the remaining layer of butter. Sprinkle tops liberally with remaining Parmesan, and then broil until bubbly and brown, about 5 to 8 minutes. Let rest one minute, slice, and serve.
Per serving: 517 calories, 38 grams protein, 38 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 36 grams fat, 92 milligrams cholesterol, 1,020 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Woodburn Clams & Crabs, 1246 Atkinson Ave., Somers Point, N.J., 609-927-5521.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682, email@example.com, or @CraigLaBan on Twitter.