Down Jersey Cooking: Clam Pie

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I have to make a confession: I don’t have a go-to dish for a potluck dinner.

If it’s Lisa doing the cooking, she has a Rolodex in her head of ideas to throw together. But for me, the one who is still strengthening his cooking muscles, it’s not there yet. When we were invited to a potluck dinner recently, I decided to give Lisa and break and do the cooking myself, to see if I could take on the challenge.

And besides, I had a cookbook that I have been itching to take out for a spin.

Some months ago, while perusing the local library, I stumbled upon a wonderful cookbook called Down Jersey Cooking. Published in 2005, this was a labor of love by the author Joe Colanero, who was a local food writer and avid gardener. Over a number of years, Joe went all over the ‘Down Jersey’ region of South Jersey, collecting recipes from home cooks as well as restaurants, in an attempt to state to the world that, as he puts it “There is a Down Jersey Cuisine.” His enthusiasm for the subject matter jumped right off the pages, and I fell immediately under its spell.

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What I really like about this cookbook is that most of the recipes go back a number of generations – before the days of the modern supermarket. Out of necessity, these recipes used local ingredients, taking advantage of the bounties of the fields and the Delaware Bay. With all the more recent talk about buying and eating local, organic and sustainable, this is just the kind of cookbook that will encourage me to do just that.

Sadly, Joe Colanero passed away in August of 2008, denying us the chance to talk to him. It’s one of those moments that I wished that we could have started this blog a year or so earlier; I would have loved to have met him.

Thinking about what would travel well to a potluck, I settled upon a dish that I myself had never had before but sounded very rustic and intriguing: clam pie. And yes, it’s a savory pie. The book has two different clam pie recipes, and I decided to try the Wilson Family Clam Pie. Now, just to give you a bit of the flavor of the cookbook, here’s the intro to the recipe:

“Sharon Wilson passes this thick, homey clam pie recipe she inherited from her husband’s grandmother, who retained this dish from her English heritage. Bob Wilson, her husband, who has been clamming off of Brigantine, near Atlantic City, since he was eight years old, passes this along. For one, opt for the larger clams as they have more flavor, and ‘For goodness’ sake, try to use fresh-shucked Jersey clams, not those insipid interlopers from Florida.’ Sharon would add that, ‘Never use canned clams. That’s a sacrilege to my husband.'” (page 138)

And so, honoring the wishes of the Wilson family, I went to our local fish store, Ahearn’s in Waretown and picked up a dozen chowder clams.

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It had been some time since I had shucked some clams, and after a slow start got the rhythm and took care of the dozen – only cutting myself once.

Wilson Family Clam Pie
(from Down Jersey Cooking by Joe Colanero)

12-15 chowder clams
2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
1 large onion, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
2 Tbls chopped parsley
Pepper to taste
Pinch of thyme (optional)
1 egg, lightly beaten
Roux of 2 Tbls each of melted butter and flour
2 Tbls light cream, plus additional for brushing crust
Homemade or store-bought dough for a 9-inch pie plate, rolled out thinly

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Scrub clams thoroughly and shuck into a bowl to catch the juices. Remove clams from the bowl with a swishing motion in order to allow any clinging grit to fall back into the juice and pulse the clam meat in a food processor until coarsely chopped, or use scissors with the clam meat in a container. Chopping on a cutting board is rather messy.
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Carefully decant the clam juice to free it of its grit by having the container rest for a few minutes and then slowly pour the juice into another container, leaving the last portion of the juice with the grit in the pouring container. Repeat several times. You may prefer to use a fine mesh strainer instead. Place the potatoes, onions and celery in a skillet with the clear clam juice and just enough water to cover the vegetables. Simmer over medium heat, covered, until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes.
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Meanwhile, make a roux by melting the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the flour, stirring for 2 minutes. Add cream, stirring for a few seconds. Add to the skillet the parsley, clam meat, thyme, and pepper to taste, return to a simmer. Add beaten egg and cook for 4 minutes. Stir in roux, let cool. Spoon filling directly into pie shell and cover with dough and brush with cream. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the crust is golden.

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The best way I can describe the taste is that it’s almost like having chowder in a crust. The clam flavor does certainly come through, and the pieces of clam were not overly chewy. The roux is certainly very important in this dish, as is the process of removing the dirt from the clams and clam juice. There’s nothing more unnerving then eating clams and crunching down on a grain of sand (ewww). I would also add maybe an extra pinch or two of thyme; I didn’t get enough aromatic punch from the pinch.

This clam pie is not a pretty dish; rustic is the word I would use. But it is a very satisfying dish. And the next day it tasted even better. One other thing: if you like hot sauce on your clams on a half shell, a dash or two here works as well.

So now my potluck repertoire has a weapon in its arsenal. And we will be trying and posting more recipes from Down Jersey Cooking in the future.


5 thoughts on “Down Jersey Cooking: Clam Pie

  1. I love regional cookbooks! I ate a lot of fish pie growing up thanks to my British heritage. It was very close to your clam pie. Brings back good memories! Looks delicious…even if it is a rustic dish. 🙂

  2. What a great cookbook! I would love to get hold of a copy. Your clam pie looks delicious. Clam chowder in a crust? Sounds perfect!

  3. Michele – It didn't help that I messed up the crust on top, which makes it look extra 'rustic'. ;)Jen – you can find it on Amazon, but be prepared to drop at least $50 for it. Luckily, I had an Amazon gift certificate for $50 to cover the cost. Check your local library as well.Chef E – If I can't take great photos, at least I try to make them funny. :)- John

  4. I am thrilled to find this! My Grandmother was born and raised in Downe/ Newport. After retirement, my Dad missed clam pie so much he told me that, if I’d make a pie crust, he’d create clam pie from memory. I now have fond memories of pie- making with Dad. That was 30 yrs ago. Why didn’t I write down what he was doing on his side of the kitchen?? I’m pretty sure his was mostly clams, onion, and butter pats — but it was a delicious part of my heritage!! L Darby Yagel

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