Heading to Garibaldi last Sunday was a two-fold adventure: Escape the stifling heat in the Mid-Valley and rake for cockles at Tillamook Bay during the lowest tide of the year.
It seems like many others had the same in mind because I found the usually vacant parking lot at the crabbing pier and bay access at 12th Street completely packed with cars. They were wedged in there so tight like sardines, I wondered how people actually got out of them with all their gear.
I was relieved when I finally found a parking spot between houses on 12th Street.
As I rounded the walkway and stairs down to the bay access, I looked up, and there were at least 50 people out on the sand flats digging and raking, many of them families with children. The silence of the calm 64-degree air was punctuated by the sounds of kids squealing in delight as their parents raked up a cockle and encouraged them to pick it up and put it in their nylon mesh bag or bucket.
With my bucket, nylon mesh bag and garden rake in hand, I headed onto the bay, found a spot that had a patch of algae sheets and hit pay dirt. Once I found one in the sand, there were usually others nearby. In an hour, I had amassed my limit of 20. I collected some seawater in my bucket and was rinsing off the cockles in my nylon mesh bag when a family visiting from California stopped me to ask me how to cook them. It was their first time raking for cockles. I explained that I had something special in mind that a work colleague, Carol Currie, a native of Rhode Island, had turned me on to: clam cakes. I had told her I was going to make Manhattan-style cockle chowder when she started pining away for clam cakes.
“For native Rhode Islanders, clam cakes and chowder go together like spaghetti and meatballs, fish and chips, cake and ice cream,” she said. “Anyone who has lived in the smallest state in the union for any amount of time can tell you that clam cakes and chowder are the Sonny and Cher of food groups in the Ocean State. Newspapers such as the Providence Journal run contests regularly to vote on the best clam cakes along the seaboard.”
When I asked her to describe them, she said trying to describe a clam cake is tricky; to the uninitiated, a good description might be clam beignets. It’s a flour batter moistened and chock with clams then deep fried. Some chefs also use beer instead of milk to moisten the batter, and experimentation is key to achieve the greatest gob of clam goodness. Cockles frequently are used as the clam of choice because they’re sturdier and larger than a steamer clam.
“If you’re making chowder, you owe it to try a clam cake with it,” she said. “The only downside is you’ll never want one without the other again.”
Back at home, once I had all the cockles shelled and chopped up and the chowder made, I set about to make the cockle cakes. Making something for the first time when you’ve never had it and only seen pictures of what it’s supposed to look like can be a little intimidating to the novice home cook. You just have to go with your gut and trust your instincts, especially if you start fidgeting with the recipe (which Carol supplied to me courtesy of Food.com). The recipe called for milk, which I decided to substitute with Widmer Hefeweizen. And in addition to using plain salt, I used garlic seasoning and tossed in some dried thyme.
Carol was right. As my family and neighbors Matt and Brenda Russell, who were called upon to help us consume our cockle bounty, feasted upon the cockle chowder and cockle cakes, they were all smiling and nodding. At the end of the meal, there was nary a cockle cake left in sight.
Tillamook Bay Cockle Chowder
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 thick slices of bacon, diced
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 3 ribs of celery, split and diced
- 2 red bell peppers, diced
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 3 cups chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 carrots, sliced into discs
- 3 Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 2 28 ounce cans of peeled whole plum tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 2 tablespoons thyme
- 12-18 large cockles, purged, shucked and minced (or substitute 14-16 ounces of minced clams)
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
In a large stock pot, heat oil over medium-high heat and sauté bacon until it begins to crisp. Add onions, and stir frequently until onions begin to turn translucent.
Add bell peppers and celery, stirring until they begin to soften. Add rest of ingredients except parsley and cockles and bring to a boil. Lower to a slow boil and cook covered for about 8 minutes until potatoes are done. Add minced cockles, and stir in, continuing to cook for 2 more minutes. Turn off heat and serve, topped with parsley.
Tillamook Bay Cockle Cakes
- Enough oil for deep frying
- 1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon garlic seasoning
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1/2 cup Widmer Hefeweizen
- 8 large cockles, purged, shucked and minced (or substitute 8-12 ounces of minced clams)
Heat oil in deep-sided heavy stock pot or pan over medium-high heat until the temperature reaches 325 degrees.
In the meantime, mixed all other ingredients together in a bowl until it turns into a sticky batter.
Using a spoon or ice cream scoop, drop balls of batter into the hot oil, turning them over and frying until golden.