The dinner gathering has been impromptu and Chef Simpson of Cafe Asean is feeling a little guilty that he hasn't had time to plan what to cook.
Calmly but quickly, he zips about his spacious Manhattan kitchen, pulling out bags, inspecting his fridge. "This is a good time to eat razor clams, you know," he stops to say, showing us the big bag he acquired from the farmers' market that very morning. "They taste really good right now."
Now, while I've eaten razor clams — or bamboo clams as they're called in some parts of Asia — I've never even thought to cook them at home. A slab of steak, pieces of chicken, a whole turkey — those I can comprehend. Razor clams? They had just always seemed a touch too exotic for my abilities.
Simpson, however, shares none of my apprehension, looking at me like I'm crazy and then shrugging when I ask, "How are you going to cook them?"
"It depends on what I have in the kitchen," is his simple answer. With that, Simpson fires up his stove and away we go …
Although Simpson claims to be winging it, he's moving with such grace and ease that it looks like he's simply throwing together a tried and true recipe.
Not so, he insists, as he heats up olive oil and tosses in some minced lemongrass.
After some rummaging in his fridge, he emerges with tubs of minced garlic, galangal, tom yum paste and whole red chilis, tossing those in as well.
Then, in go the clams, which he stirs around a bit before a little more rummaging reveals a container of leftover homemade marinara. "Whatever I find in my fridge I just put in lor," he says, dumping the sauce into his pan.
When I ask how long the clams have to cook for, he has to stop and think for a second.
"Five minutes? Three?" he says. "You just have to look and see — if the clams look like they're shrinking away from the shell, then they're cooked."
After a few more ingredients go in — fish sauce, sugar cubes (simply because it's what he happens to have, not regular sugar) — it's time to call on Mike the taster, who declares it a winner.
Before serving, Simpson (in his fashionable cooking goggles) sprinkles on some deep-fried shallots for added crunch and flavor …
… and sets the dish out with toasted bread.
The clams are perfectly done and the gravy is delicious — sweet, sour and fiery hot (but not too much so). Even though we're all trying not to eat carbs, the bread, soaked to softness in the spicy gravy, disappears rapidly.
Now, whenever you compliment Simpson on his home-made dishes, he often shoos you away, saying, "I just threw this together!" Which, in this case, was not untrue. Even so, as kitchen-sink recipes go, this was certainly a keeper.
Simpson's Southeast Asian Razor Clams Recipe
- 3 lb razor clams
- 2 TB finely chopped lemongrass
- 3 TB minced galangal
- 2 small red chilis
- 1 TB tom yum paste
- 1.5 TB minced garlic
- 1.5 cups marinara sauce
- 1-2 TB fish sauce
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 2 TB parsley
- 5 sugar cubes
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Deep-fried shallots for garnish
Heat olive oil in a pan and add lemongrass, galangal, garlic and chilis and fry it together until fragrant. The, add tom yum paste and stir until heated through and well mixed. Then add clams and mix it together with the other ingredients, frying up the mixture for three minutes. Add marinara sauce, water, fish sauce and parsley and mix it altogether. When the mixture is hot, add sugar cubes and stir mixture together until sugar has dissolved.
Remove from heat, sprinkle shallots on top of clam mixture and serve with toasted bread.