Earl Carter
Earl Carter
Earl Carter
Earl Carter Earl Carter
Earl Carter
Credit: Earl Carter

Clams, bacon and bread

Andrew McConnell is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.

Credit: Earl Carter

Clams casino is usually a dish of clams cooked on the half shell, with breadcrumbs and bacon. There is scholarly dispute over the dish’s origin but popular accounts have it being invented by Julius Keller at New York’s Narragansett Pier in 1917, to please an insistent female patron named Mrs Paran Stevens.

The story is recounted in Keller’s autobiography, Inns and Outs, as follows: “On an order she had left for luncheon one day she had included soft clams, but had neglected to mention how she wanted them served. Seizing the opportunity, I prepared a dish which I had tried on my own cultivated palate and found eminently satisfactory. For each person in her party I had a service of eight clams prepared. I used soft clams of the larger size, which I had removed from their shells with the strings cut off so that only the bellies remained. These were placed on half-shells, and on each went a small quantity of butter mixed with paprika, salt, pepper, and chopped shallots, which have a mild garlic-like taste. Small strips of bacon atop the clam bellies completed the concoction, and after baking for ten minutes in the oven it was ready for consumption… She tasted it and expressed her delight, as did her guests, all genuine gourmets.”

Keller’s achievement is challenged in the 2009 University of California research paper, The Truth about Clams Casino, which concludes the dish may pre-date 1917 and may indeed have evolved from a similar preparation using oysters. “Generally, most new dishes are not invented; they evolve,” the piece noted. “Timing and opportunity are key.”

I’ve called this dish “Clams and bacon” and have made it wetter and, having eaten clams casino, I would say better. Instead of breadcrumbs, I’ve roasted the bread and added it to the pan to soak up juices. I’ve also added bonito flakes instead of paprika, which adds a more subtle smoky flavour – particularly if the bacon is not smoky enough, which is often the case. 

Larger surf clams are best for this, as they are meatier and won’t dry out. Smaller clams will work, as long as they have been purged.

I learnt to purge clams in China: I take a bucket of water, half a cup of long-grain rice, and mix the rice into the water vigorously until it becomes cloudy, releasing the starch; drain off and reserve the water, removing the rice, and then submerge the clams in the starchy water for a couple of hours. The starch aggravates the clams, encouraging them to give up any sand or other detritus. I’ve also seen this done with a few teaspoons of flour, but that seems less romantic. 

Whether or not Julius Keller invented clams casino, The New York Times still credits the “father of cafe society” with introducing male gigolos to America. Worthy achievements, both.

Wine pairing:

2013 Mengoba Brezo Blanco godello, Bierzo, Spain ($27) – Leanne Altmann, sommelier, Supernormal


Serves 4

  • 75g soft butter
  • 1½ tbsp dried bonito flakes (about 4g) 
  • 2 thick slices sourdough bread 
  • 2 tbsp water 
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 100g bacon, small dice
  • 3 spring onions, pale stem only, finely chopped 
  • 1kg large clams
  • ¼ cup dry white wine
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped parsley 
  • 1 pinch freshly ground white pepper
  • a wedge of lemon to serve
  1. Mix the bonito flakes into the butter and set aside.
  2. Tear the bread into chunks and toss with the olive oil and water. Bake in a hot oven until golden and crisp on the outside.
  3. In a pan wide enough to hold the clams in a single layer, sauté the spring onions and bacon in one teaspoon of olive oil. 
  4. Add the clams to the pan along with the white wine. Cover with a lid and cook over a medium heat. Check and stir from time to time. 
  5. Remove the clams from the pan as they open and put them into a bowl. Reserve one cup of the cooking juices and all the solids.
  6. In a saucepan, warm the cooking juices and bacon bits over a gentle heat and whisk the bonito butter and chopped parsley into the clam juice.
  7. Arrange the clams and toasted bread in a shallow bowl and spoon the sauce over the top.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 18, 2015 as "Worthy is the clam".

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Andrew McConnell is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.