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On a perfect July day, the kind where you can taste the summer heat between sharp gusts of wind, we met up with Ricky and his friends Steven Goodwin and Renee Perry from Salty Catch Seafood Company at, as Ricky affectionately described, “the edge of the earth.” Steven, our local guide was born and raised in Cedar Island, where his family fishes and shrimps for a living. With our local guide leading the way, we set out of Cedar Island Bay to go clamming.
When we arrived at a shoal off Harbor Island, former stomping grounds of the Harbor Island Hunting Club and of the Harbor Island Light, both of which have since given way to the sea, there was nary a soul in sight against miles and miles of water and salt marsh. Ricky and Steven hopped overboard and got to work digging for clams and bailing them in a small skiff. An hour or so later, the pair had harvested a few dozen, and Ricky was ready to get to the stove.
“I just experienced what it means to dig for clams,” Ricky said as Stephen hoisted the anchor aboard. “It took me at least an hour to dig a dozen. That means I’m inexperienced. But it’s really important that we appreciate what a fisherman does. Steven, my comrade of Salty Catch, dug three dozen in probably five minutes. I guess he was showing off [laughs]. But it was cool for him to show me and give me the details of what it means to do that.”
And with that, we set off due east for a north-south strip of shells and sand appropriately named Shell Island. As Ricky and Steven unloaded the gear – stakes that had seen a former life holding pound nets, coolers of delectable seasonal ingredients, bushel baskets, a cast iron skillet and freshwater – Renee scoured the narrow island for dried sea grass to get the fire started. After a few minutes of strategizing set-up with our battle against the wind, and a few longer minutes coaxing the flames into a fire, the stove was set for the chef. Quickly, colors of the sunset filled Ricky’s cast iron pan as the wind encompassed us in its mouthwatering aromas.
“This is the most righteous way of cooking, but also primitive,” Ricky announced while he plated the clam dish. “We have been dealing with a little bit of the elements because the wind is blowing a lot, but at the end of the day we have very fresh ingredients, we just dug the clams, the environment was as pristine as it could be and it just makes sense to make this dish here, in this place.”
“I have a newfound appreciation for what it means to make a clam chowder, if you will, or any sort of clam dish,” he continued. “If everybody were to come out here and physically do the work, I think their perception of what that dish is would change totally.”
We took our time heading back into the harbor, and Steven pointed out Core Sound landmarks and Cedar Island’s only remaining fish house along the way. As we puttered along Ricky announced, “This experience has definitely reconnected me to my roots. I grew up an hour and a half away from here, and all my family grew up eating fish. I crabbed, I floundered; but it was very primitive, you know, and I didn’t really have an appreciation for commercial fishing. I didn’t foresee I was going to be cooking seafood. If you look at my career and all the places I’ve cooked and all the things I’ve done, it’s a little bit surprising, but it just feels natural. This experience has been a delightful surprise, it feels natural, too – it wasn’t forced, we didn’t really have a plan, it just happened. It is so meaningful to me and feels like where I need to be at this moment.”
Without further adieu, a look at Ricky's mouthwatering Shell Island clams.
Recipe by Ricky Moore, Chef and Owner, Saltbox Seafood Joint 2016
4-1/2 pounds NC clams
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup dry white wine, such as pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc
1 small onion or 2 shallots, minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
¼ to ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 ½ cups of freshly shucked corn
1 ½ pounds chopped gold tomatoes (collect the juice)
1 strip of orange zest
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Pinch of saffron (optional)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 to 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
A drizzle of olive oil or squeeze of lemon juice for serving (optional)
Rinse the clams in several changes of water and scrub with a small brush, such as a toothbrush.
Discard any that are open or that have cracked shells.
Place the wine in a large, lidded pan that will accommodate all of the clams (a wok with a lid works well). Bring to a boil and reduce by half. Add the clams, cover and cook over high heat, shaking the pan from time to time, for 2 to 3 minutes, until the clams open. Remove from the heat. Discard any clams that have not opened.
Set a strainer over a bowl, line with cheesecloth and drain the clams. Set the liquid and the clams aside in separate bowls.
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large, wide, lidded skillet or casserole and add the shallots. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 3 minutes, and add the garlic and red pepper flakes.
Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds to a minute, and add corn, tomatoes, orange zest, thyme, saffron, and the liquid from the clams. Add salt and pepper to taste, bring to a simmer over medium heat, reduce the heat and simmer 20 to 25 minutes, stirring often, until the mixture has cooked down and is very fragrant. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Stir the clams into the tomato sauce and heat through, stirring. Add the parsley, stir again, and serve in wide soup bowls. Drizzle a little olive oil and a few drops of lemon juice over each serving if you wish.
Visit Ricky and his team at Saltbox Seafood Joint Tuesday through Saturday 11 AM - 7PM, or until the fish runs out. For daily specials and seasonal features, give Saltbox Seafood Joint a follow on Facebook.
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