Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Sopa de Almejas (Clam Soup)

There is this wonderful Peruvian restaurant in Connecticut that the CC has been visiting for more than a decade. It makes a killer sopa de almejas.

Since the restaurant is a bit of a hike for the CC, he always ends up ordering the soup — rather than the other possibly amazing dishes — and he's never disappointed. It's served with some bread (at best, average) and some amazing homemade aji criollo.

However, it's the soup that really sings and the CC has been trying to reproduce it ever since.

At long last — it only took a decade — he's untangled the various strands and made it for himself, and it's exactly as killer.

There were several hidden problems that needed to be solved. One was that the soup came with this emulsified broth with a very deep taste. Inside it were placed four or five rather large clams. Finely chopped cilantro was sprinkled on the top. The broth had no solids but it had an intense flavor. There was a reasonable amount of oil in the broth like all restaurants. However, this turned out to be a red herring. There were more important things at play.

Some things were really obvious. There was a lot of tomato purée in the broth. There were the deep notes of black pepper. It was clear it was some kind of fish broth. It also had a very deep cilantro flavor that could not be coming from the tiny amount of stuff sprinkled on top.

The other clue was the price point on the menu. It was one of the cheapest items, and the serving was large enough for a very good lunch. Now, clams are rather cheap on the Eastern seaboard but they're not that cheap so that means the ingredients inside the broth had to be cheaper. (The CC considered the possibility that they were using commercial clam juice but the taste of the broth had a subtle fresh flavor so it didn't seem very likely.)

Other clues. The clams were served on the half-shell and were very juicy. They could not have been cooked with the broth, and they were too plump to have been sitting in there for too long.

Two other important clues.

The dish always took a little longer to serve than other dishes (when the CC went with friends) and the surprising one —  the broth was served piping hot. It was served almost at boiling point (close to 90-95°C.) When the broth cooled down, the soup didn't taste as good. Clearly, the temperature mattered greatly.

Peruvian cuisine is the ultimate mashup — besides the indigenous Incan origin, it's had Spanish, Italian, Chinese, West African and particularly Japanese influences.

It was clear that the broth had tons of umami but once again the price-point was critical. They may have been using MSG but it was being done with a light hand.

The critical insight is that this was a cheap restaurant surviving on very low margins. Nothing could be wasted. There were shrimp on the menu and they were clearly buying them whole. The broth was being made with the shrimp heads and the shells. They are the source of the resonant thumping flavor. Also, the broth clearly had onions and garlic and tons of black pepper and cilantro. However, after the broth being made, it was being filtered and solids pressed and tossed out. Then the clams were being shucked, and cooked in the broth, and whole thing brought to the table piping hot. They were also generous with salt.

Why did the temperature matter?

The CC is not completely sure but it seems plausible that the bitter notes of the cilantro and the pepper were dominating at lower temperatures. When hot, you just got the heady hit of the salt and umami from the broth and the tomatoes.

Sopa de Almejas

Note 1: The clams that the CC gets are the standard East Coast clams. The giant ones are easier to find up in Connecticut, Massachusetts & Maine. This doesn't matter as much. They were definitely using local stuff not Manila clams, etc.

Note 2: The salt in this recipe is really crucial. You need to add a teeny bit more than you think completely rational. The CC added salt to the boiling broth until it tasted "correct". It was a lot more than he expected. It will not be the same without.

Note 3: Unless you have shrimp heads and shells in your freezer, the clear substitute would be dried shrimp. You will also need some kombu unless you plan to add MSG. Not going to work otherwise.

Note 4: As ridiculous as this sounds, it's better with crusty bread that has been wrapped for about 6-8 hours in foil so that it goes just slightly limp from the exhalation of the moisture from the starch. The CC is perfectly aware that this is anal retentiveness of the highest order.

Note 5: The broth really needs to be at a boil. The CC is not kidding.


(serves 2)

1 dozen clams

2 tbsp oil
1 small onion (diced fine)
6-8 cloves of garlic (chopped)
4-6 tbsp tomato purée
1 piece kombu
1/4 cup dried shrimp
1/4 cup dried anchovies (if you have them)
1/3 cup diced cilantro (stems and all)
3 tbsp coarsely ground black pepper
4 cups water

finely chopped cilantro leaves (to serve)


First make the dashi.

Bring the water to the boil with the kombu. Right before the water boils, remove it and discard. If you don't do this, the broth will turn bitter. Toss in the shrimp and anchovies and let it boil for about 7-8 minutes. Skim the nasty froth that comes on top. Strain and keep the liquid. Discard the solids.

Heat up the oil. Fry the onions and the garlic until golden. Add the tomato purée and fry for a bit. Add the dashi, cilantro, salt and black pepper and bring to a rolling boil. Cook for about 6-7 minutes. Turn off the heat and let it steep for 10 minutes or so. Strain the broth pressing down on the solids to extract as much of the broth as necessary. Discard the solids.

(If you have two pots, the dashi can directly be strained into the second step. It will save you tons of time.)

Steam the clams with either the broth or some water. As they open, remove them and shuck off the half-shell. You can also just shuck them and store if you don't want to serve them with the half-shells.

Filter the clam broth with some paper towels. Clams are generally very gritty. Add this clam broth to the other broth.

Bring the broth to a rolling boil. Check for salt. You may need more.

Pour the broth over the clams. Add the cilantro on top. Serve at once with the crusty bread.

This can't be entirely surprising for a recipe that was a decade in the making.

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