A simple shellfish recipe for two inspired by The River Cottage.

As the very proud owner of some 200+ cookbooks, I'm often asked by bewildered visitors if I actually use any of them when I cook. I guess the thinking must be something like I'm obviously a collector (or horder) of cookbooks, and therefore, I probably just stare at the multitude of spines in personal admiration. Sort of like the way someone who bought all the volumes of Will Durant's "The Story of Civilization" might look up smugly at the never-cracked-open books on their dusty perch as proof of his learnedness.

I do, in fact, "use" them all the time. But more for inspiration than direction. While I may not be a great cook, I'm certainly competent enough technique-wise to not need slavish devotion to anyone's instructions. Besides, if a recipe is that complicated, I figure I'd be better off just going to the restaurant of the chef who came up with it.

Cookbooks are far more than the recipes they're made up of; they are an endless source of insight into how things work together (or not). In fact, I bet the writers of just about every cookbook I own would be quite pleased by the many, many little ah-ha moments I've had while scanning their pages looking for ideas for the evening's repast. Well, Escoffier probably wouldn't.

This particular Tuesday night dinner was very much inspired by, and very, very loosely based on, this recipe from one of the half-dozen cookbooks I added to my collection whilst in London visiting my lovely wife's sister and her lovely family. The little gem is called "Edible Seashore," and it's part of The River Cottage Handbook series (No. 5, to be precise).

For those who don't know about The River Cottage, you ought to. The River Cottage cookery books (as they would call them) are without question among the most informative, interesting, well laid out, and any other accolade you can think of. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (how English is that?!) is the mad genius behind The River Cottage. (For the record, No. 5 was actually penned by John Wright.)

We had loaded up on white and red meat protein in London, so something lighter seemed in order. And the addition of some meat to the dish meant that we wouldn't have to go through withdrawal cold turkey. I love the idea of sausage, or some similar meat, with shellfish, and always think of it as a Portuguese invention. It probably isn't, but that doesn't matter.

Anyway, the second I saw the recipe while flipping through the book, a bunch of things popped into my mind: I would only need to buy the shellfish. I had a lemon. Didn't have chorizo, but did have a couple of inches of pepperoni left over from making pizza with the kids a few days before (I know chorizo isn't the same as pepperoni, but all I'd need to do is adjust how I employed it). I also had two sweet potatoes, some carrots and half a red onion, none of which were called for by the recipe. But I wanted to use them before they became useless. It would have been nice to include a celery rib because two-thirds of the trinity were already present, but not enough to do anything about it.

And finally, the duck fat. We had duck confit a few nights before, and rather than toss the fat away after extracting the duck from it, I put it in a bag in the freezer for times just like this. I figured a little flavor boost to the shellfish cooking liquid couldn't hurt.

I got a couple of handfuls of cockles and a dozen little neck clams at my neighborhood fish place (Citarella, not a bad one to have in one's neighborhood). Perhaps this next bit is obvious, but I'm thinking it's not because I can't count the number of times I've had to swallow grit in order to enjoy the privilege of eating a clam. Get a very big bowl, and after scrubbing each clam and cockle under cold, running water, put them in it and soak for about 30 minutes, emptying and replacing the water every few minutes. It's the only way to get the grit out. 

(If you're not ready to deal with them, put them in a bowl with ice and put them in the fridge. Don't leave them in whatever bag they came home with you in. They need air or they'll die, and if you ate one that had, you'd wish you had as well.)

Ah, the duck fat getting ready to render itself into a silky base (low heat so it doesn't burn).

This is what you're left with once the duck fat has slowly ebbed away from the bits of skin and meat. Think of these crisps as little flavor enhancers.

Remove them with a fork (you don't want to scoop up any of the precious fat) and drain them on a paper towel. You'll crumble them on the dish as a final gesture of decadence before you dig in.

Now goes in about half a red onion. I prefer reds to yellows because my Italian grandmother did. Their robustness can be too much for some dishes, however. You can chop it finer, if you want, but I left it chunky because I wanted color contrast.

Push them around well and often. You don't want them to stick and burn. I know my stove and my pans almost as intimately as I do my lovely wife (in some ways, more so, actually), so I do most sauté work on what the dial says is medium flame. But yours will differ. And to add another variable into the mix, know your fat, too. Olive oil can take higher heat than, for example, butter before smoking. Duck fat is closer to butter than olive oil.

Then the carrots. Again, biggish pieces for me this time, but you do what you want. You needn't go to the trouble of peeling them unless they're really big and/or really old. Keep in mind that you'll be cooking the cockles and clams in this pan, too, so you don't need to get the carrots soft via the sauté. And in fact, you had better not or they'll just crumble and dissolve by the time the dish is done.

Meanwhile, roughly chunk up the sweet potatoes into bite-size pieces or a bit bigger. By all means, don't peel them. There's an awful lot of stuff in the skin that's good for you. Put them in a large saucepan and bring them up to a not-too-rough boil. You don't want them to fall apart when you assemble the dish. I actually cooked them a bit longer than I should have because I was going back and forth between deciding if they should be finished in the pan with the clams, etc., or not. Leave them by themselves to cook; stirring them in what would then have been a very crowded pan would have just made them fall apart, a result that would have been fine, but wouldn't have looked as pretty.

Chop some garlic. How much depends on you. And don't do it until very shortly before you'll be using it. Garlic loses its fragrance very quickly.

I've never understood why recipes typically call for garlic to be sautéed for a minute or more. To retain any garlic-ness, not to mention prevent its burning, push it around for about 20 seconds, and then quickly get to whatever your next step is.

Now for some liquid to cook the shellfish in. Shameless plug alert: Not only do I drink my wines, I cook with them, too. Pierre Noire is the soon-to-be-retired label of some of Domaine Pouillon's lovely Washington State wines I sell in New York. I used only about a shot-glass of wine because I included the juice of one lemon as well. And finally, I added about a half-cup of water. The clams and cockles would do the rest by giving up their intense liquor during their impending death struggle.

Into the pan the cockles and clams go. Stir everything around well, and try to keep all of the shells in a single layer.

Yes, I know that there is a great disparity in size, and thus cooking times, for these two animals. The more refined practice might be to start the clams and then add the cockles. But that involves the kind of exact timing that is best left to professionals. The truth is that no one can accurately tell you what the cooking time is for a clam or cockle. Some hold onto to life stubbornly, some surrender to the inevitable with nary a whimper (they're like us, after all). So, it's just easier to not worry about it. Cover the pan after you bring the liquid up to a not-too-violent roil.

What you will need to be very vigilant about is lifting the lid and looking for open shells. The second they give up, take them out with a slotted spoon or your fingers. Stir the remaining ones around after doing so. No pan is a perfect conductor of heat, so being on the fringes isn't the same as being in the middle.

The bubbles tell me that I'm making sure that as the contents of the pan diminish, I'm adjusting the heat, too.

No need to do anything with the ones you've removed other than drop them into a bowl.

Things have probably slowed down a bit, so dice that pepperoni now. The better practice would have been to have done it when you chopped your onions, carrots and sweet potatoes.

My fishmonger is awesome. This was the moment that the last few hold outs stopped holding out. Of this entire batch of clams and cockles, not a single one didn't open, and just as importantly, not a single one was open before I put them in the pan (if you notice a slightly open shell before you start cooking them, tap on it; if it doesn't close tightly, toss it out, and get rid of any with cracked shells, as well).

Now that all the shellfish are out of the pan, drop in the pepperoni, stir it around, and check for seasoning. You probably won't need much, if any, salt. But don't be shy. Just because you've cooked sea creatures doesn't mean won't need to adjust. As you can see, there's not much more than a healthy coating of broth in the pan.

Return the clams and cockles to the pan and add the sweet potatoes. Gently work everything around in the broth.

Now is the time to chop up more parsley than you think you need. It's actually one of the few fresh herbs that you simply can't use too much of. I like the look of it so I never mince it or finely chop it, but like most things, prejudice is a matter of taste.

Sprinkle the parsley all over and then portion out your servings. You don't need anything to soak up the sauce because the potatoes will do some of that for you. But we had some leftover rice from the previous day's Chinese takeout, so I layered each bowl with maybe a half-inch or so before taking it to the plate, as Mario Batali would say.

Finally, crumble the duck skin/meat crisps.

Glorious detritus.

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