Steamed clams are easy to prepare, and make for a tasty casual dinner when served with melted butter. But with just a little more work, you can cook clams that make a hearty, delicious dish fit for company.
I like to serve these clams with udon noodles, which soak up the sauce. If you prefer, omit the noodles, and serve the clams with bread.
People tend to think of udon as the thick noodles served in soup at inexpensive Japanese restaurants, but there are many types. For this recipe, buy dried udon that’s about the thickness of linguine.
The Japanese leek (negi) is smaller than the European leek, which is sometimes called a Welsh onion. Japanese negi are about 1cm in diameter, and because they are more tender, the whole thing can be eaten. With European leeks, only the white and pale green parts are tender enough to be eaten, although the leek tops can be simmered with other ingredients to flavour soup stocks.
For this dish, use clams with shells about 4cm (1½ in) long or smaller. Small mussels are a good substitute for the clams, but don’t use the large, green-lip variety, because they are tough and coarse.
The kombu is optional, but it does add a gentle umami flavour; if you leave it out, you will probably need to add a little more salt. To vary the flavour, try substituting fresh shiso leaves (cut into a fine chiffonade) in place of the shredded nori.
Bring a pot of water to the boil and add the udon. Cook the noodles until they are still a little firm to the bite. When the udon is ready, drain it in a colander.
Rinse the clams under cool water, then drain in a colander. Briefly rinse the pieces of kombu, if using.
Rinse the leeks and trim off the stem ends. Slice the leeks on the diagonal into pieces about 1.5cm (⅔ in) long. With Japanese leeks, use the entire leek, for European leeks, use only the white and pale green part.
Melt the butter in a pan placed over a medium flame, then add the leek and kombu. Sprinkle in a little salt, then cook for a few minutes, or until the leeks soften.
Pour the sake into the pan, bring to the boil, then simmer for about 30 seconds.
Add the clams, then cover the pan with a lid. Lower the flame, then simmer until the clams start to open, shaking the pan occasionally.
Quickly rinse the udon under hot water, then add to the pan. Mix well, then simmer until the udon is tender.
Taste the liquid and add more salt, if necessary. Season to taste with black pepper.
Fish out the pieces of kombu from the pan and finely julienne them. Add the pieces back to the pan. Mix in two large pinches of shredded nori, then serve immediately.