Friday, 7 August 2009

Juicy, salty, black bean clams

My idea of how black bean clams should taste is so addictively delicious that it is heartbreaking when the actual dish I have made does not taste as I imagined. In my mind, you should have bouncy, juicy clams, scented with garlic and undertones of ginger, enlivened with the crunch of spring onions, warmed with chilli and spiked with salty nubs of mashed black bean.

I've tried making this before and often ended up with either an imbalanced sauce (too weak or overly salty) or over/undercooked clams. Finally I realised that trying to get both things right at the same time was too difficult. Instead I tried splitting them - there's an extra step in this recipe but I really think it helps give good results.

We used clams dug of of the sand on Pearson Island's only tiny pebble beach, rinsed and left in seawater with a spoonful of rolled oats for a day to purify.

1.5kg clams, large fat palourdes are ideal
50 ml shaoxing wine, or white wine/dry sherry
3 tbsp groundnut oil
5 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2cm ginger, peeled and finely chopped
5 spring onions, thinly sliced, white and green parts separated
1 chilli, finely chopped
1 1/2 tbsp fermented black beans, rinsed and roughly mashed
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
3 tbsp chicken or vegetable stock
1 tsp cornstarch, dissolved in a little water

Put the clams into a dry wok or deep saucepan, add the wine, cover and steam over a high heat, shaking the pan every now and then, until the clams start to open. Remove opened clams and transfer to a covered bowl to keep in the warmth and moisture. Discard any stubborn clams that refuse to open after 10mins or so of cooking, and reserve the leftover liquid.

Heat the wok over a high heat until smoke rises. Add the oil, swirl then add the garlic and ginger. Stir fry quickly until they smell fragrant without starting to burn, then add the white spring onion and chillis and stir fry again until you can smell their aroma. Turn down the heat if they start to burn too quickly. Add the mashed black beans, then the reserved clam juice and the stock. Allow the liquid to come to the boil, taste and add the dark soy sauce bit by bit, tasting as you go. You may not need it all. If the broth tastes too salty, add some sugar, barely teaspoon as a time. The sauce should not be a little sweet and not too salty, depending on your tastes.

When the seasoning is adjusted to your liking, stir the cornstarch and water mix and add, then return the clams to the pan. Keep stirring and tossing for 5 minutes or until the clams are cooked but still juicy and tender and lightly coated with glossy black bean sauce. Add more water or stock if the sauce becomes too thick, and adjust the sugar and soy sauce balance one last time.

Scatter over the green spring onion slices and tip onto a large serving plate, scraping out all the remaining sauce and dribbling it over the clams. Eat immediately with your fingers, sucking the clam meat and sauce off the shells.

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