Stir-Fried Spicy Clams in Black Bean Sauce

豆豉蛤蝴

I love very tiny, tender clams, and when I can get them I treat them (and me) to this simple stir-fry, and pile the meat-filled shells and the heady sauce on a bed of steamed noodles. It satisfies my north Chinese love for noodles and garlic, and my south Chinese appreciation of clams dressed richly in an unctuous black bean sauce.

  • The accompaniments are all open to change—more or less garlic, more or less chili, depending on mood and menu, and rice, or better yet, a crusty loaf of hot garlic bread instead of the noodles. You may also use Pot-Browned Noodles to bed the clams. In that case, cook the clams while the second side of the noodle pillow browns.
  • The central issue here is clams. Buy the smallest ones available—1 inch is perfect, 1¼ inch second best–and be sure the shells are closed or will close upon touching, indicating the clam inside is alive and fresh. (A live clam will often “gasp” for air and open its shell slightly when it has been out of the water a while, but, if it “clams up” when the inner lip is touched with a pencil tip or finger, then you know it still is alive and good to eat.) Unless you are pulling the clams yourself from the water, they usually need no cleaning apart from a simple scrubbing. The ones you buy in markets are typically already cleaned.
  • All the preparations may be done hours in advance. Steaming the noodles and cooking the clams takes about 15 minutes.

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Ingredients

  • ⅓–½ pound long, 1/16-inch thin Chinese egg noodles, preferably fresh making your own)
  • 1–1½ teaspoons Chinese or Japanese sesame oil
  • ½–¾ teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • 2 pounds tiny, fresh clams with tightly closed, unbroken shells
  • 3–4 teaspoons salted Chinese black beans (not the variety seasoned with five-spice powder)
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry

Aromatics

  • 6–8 large cloves garlic, stem end removed, lightly smashed and peeled
  • 1 walnut-size nugget fresh ginger
  • 2 medium whole scallions, cut into 1-inch lengths
  • ⅛–¼ teaspoon dried red chili flakes, or ½–¾ teaspoon Chinese chili sauce, or thin-cut rings of fresh yellow chili to taste
  • 2 tablespoons corn or peanut oil

Liquid seasonings

  • 2–3 teaspoons thin (regular) soy sauce
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 1 scant cup light, unsalted chicken stock
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold chicken stock
  • ½ teaspoon Chinese or Japanese sesame oil

To garnish

  • 1 tablespoon freshly chopped green scallion rings, or coarsely chopped fresh coriander leaves

Method

Preparations

Parboil the noodles in a generous amount of plain boiling water, but pull them from the stove while they are still slightly undercooked. Drain immediately, rush under cold water until chilled, then shake off excess water. Toss with 1–1½ teaspoons sesame oil and ½–¾ teaspoon coarse kosher salt, depending on the amount of noodles cooked, tossing with your fingers to coat and separate the strands. Once boiled, the noodles may be bagged airtight and refrigerated for up to 3 days. Bring to room temperature before steaming.

Scrub the clam shells under running water with a stiff brush. Discard any clams that do not shut quickly when rinsed or any with broken shells. Cover with a wet towel and refrigerate up to 12 hours, if not using immediately.

Rinse the black beans with cool water. Drain, chop coarsely, then combine with the wine. Put aside to plump the beans.

Mince the garlic and ginger in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife, scraping down as necessary until fine. Add the scallions, then process until coarsely chopped. Scrape the mixture into a small dish alongside the chili flakes. Alternatively, mince the garlic and ginger until fine and chop the scallions coarsely by hand.

Combine the 2 teaspoons soy, sugar, and stock, stirring to mix. Combine the cornstarch mixture and the sesame oil in a small bowl and leave the spoon in the bowl.

Preparations may be done hours in advance. Refrigerate the aromatics, sealed airtight, and cover the wine mixture.

Steaming the noodles and stir-frying the clams

(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)

About 30 minutes before serving, spread the noodles in a shallow heatproof bowl. If they are not steaming in the serving bowl, put a serving dish in a low oven to warm.

Bring the water in the steaming vessel to a gushing boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, to maintain a slow but steady steam. Add the bowl to the steaming rack, cover the steamer, and steam the noodles about 10 minutes while you stir-fry the clams.

Have all the ingredients within easy reach of your stovetop. If you are not serving the clams on top of the noodles, put a serving bowl in a low oven to warm.

Set a wok or large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add the oil, swirl to coat the pan, then reduce the heat to medium-high. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle one bit of garlic, add the combined aromatics to the pan, nudging the chili in last. Stir until fragrant, about 10–15 seconds, adjusting the heat so the mixture foams without browning. Add the clams, stir briefly to coat, then splash the wine and beans into the pan. When it “bursts” after 1 second in a fragrant hiss, add the liquid seasonings. Stir to mix, even the clams in the pan, then raise the heat to bring the liquids to a simmer.

Cover the pot and steam-cook the clams at a strong simmer 4–5 minutes, until most all the shells are open. Peek only after 3½–4 minutes, lest you dissipate the heat. (You might also shake the pan once or twice while the clams are cooking. This is supposed to speed the opening of the shells. I don’t know if that is so, but it does give the cook something to do, and the sound of the clinking shells is very jolly and appetizing.)

When all or most all of the shells are open—a few usually stay defiantly shut—uncover the pot and reduce the heat to low. Stir and taste the sauce, then adjust with more soy sauce if required. Stir the cornstarch mixture to recombine, then add it to the pan. Stir until the sauce becomes glossy and slightly thick, about 15–20 seconds.

Remove the clams from the heat and pile them on the bed of steamed noodles, with the sauce poured on top, or heap them temptingly in a bowl to be eaten with rice or bread. Garnish with a sprinkling of scallion rings or fresh coriander leaves, then bring to the table along with plenty of napkins and a big, empty bowl for the shells.

As for leftovers, I am not a fan of leftover stir-fried clams and never arrange to have any.

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