Whenever my buddies tried to rope me in to any outdoor activity involving a fishing rod or a shovel and bucket, I hemmed and hawed and whined, “Why can’t we just swing by a fish market?”

I have no penchant for fly-fishing nor clam digging. The only thing I caught while digging for razor clams in the Long Beach Peninsula and geoduck in Sequim was a head cold.

But people, I’m here to brag that I’ve found an activity that even a moron like me can do well without breaking a sweat: digging for Manila clams around the Puget Sound. The only taxing part is you wanna race home to cook your bounty while they’re still their briny best. Below is an easy recipe to showcase these fresh clams. It requires just five ingredients and can be completed by the third commercial break of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption.” (In addition to being inept at fishing, I’m also the world’s laziest cook.)

I bring up clam digging because spring remains the best time to harvest for Manila clams in Washington; you avoid the scrum of beachgoers during summer, and it’s easier than digging during fall and winter when low tide falls at dusk and requires a headlamp.

As shellfishing goes, Manila clams are the easiest to catch (see our tip box below), a family-friendly outdoor rec. You hit a public beach designated for Manila clamming. Squat down, scratch 2 inches below the mushy sand until you see their shells. Pick up a clam and brush off the grit and drop it in your bucket. That’s it. They’re neither slippery nor do they burrow to elude you. They’re so plentiful during the spring that you can reach your 40-catch limit within 20 minutes, even if you’re dallying around on the beach.

Manila clam digging is popular in Washington state. If you want to avoid the scrum of beachgoers during the summer, the best time to go shellfishing is in the spring. (Courtesy of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)
Manila clam digging is popular in Washington state. If you want to avoid the scrum of beachgoers during the summer, the best time to go shellfishing is in the spring. (Courtesy of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)
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The taste from the sound is distinctive. I taste-tested the bounty I caught at North Bay near Belfair State Park to the clams I brought from a tank in a grocery store. Both possess the same plump, meaty texture, but my catch had a more bracing brininess. To let that Puget Sound terroir shine through, you don’t want to adulterate your catch with too many ingredients.

I love clam chowder, but I don’t want that creaminess to overrun this distinct flavor.

I also love clam and pasta, but most recipes call for some porky saltiness such as chorizo or pancetta to punch up the flavors. You don’t need, nor want, any protein with the clams that you just caught out of the sound. You want a fresh, clean bite.

Below is an amalgam of some of the best clam pasta dishes I had, with the ingredients pared down.

Some notes I jotted down on a napkin while recipe testing:

At first, I couldn’t figure why my version fell flat. Then I realized I was cooking with just olive oil. Using a high-quality extra-virgin olive oil is the key in this recipe. Frantoia extra-virgin olive oil works best for me. The clam juice just sings with the fruitiness of this oil. Mop up any leftover clam juice with some spongy bread.

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Some might find the pasta dish below too oily rich, in which case you can add cherry tomatoes for some acidity or top the dish with a tablespoon of diced preserved lemon. Or just squeeze a wedge of fresh lemon before serving.

You can also omit the chives or sub in parsley or another herb, but the double dose of allium (chives and garlic) adds some depth and works well with the fruitiness and saltiness of the clam juice.

I prefer bucatini pasta, but spaghetti works just as well.

Manila clam pasta

Why stop by a fish market when you can catch your own Manila clams in Puget Sound? (Tan Vinh / The Seattle Times)
Why stop by a fish market when you can catch your own Manila clams in Puget Sound? (Tan Vinh / The Seattle Times)

Yield: 4 servings

The ratio of clam to pasta in this recipe is two times more than what you would be served in a restaurant or that you might see in other recipes. I chose to use my 40-catch limit in one dish. The pasta is a mere backup singer here. You can, of course, use just half the clams in this recipe and store the rest in the back of the fridge. But some clams won’t survive overnight, so best to use them as soon as possible. Make sure you scrub every clam thoroughly to remove the grit.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound of spaghetti or bucatini
  • 10 garlic cloves
  • 1 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
  • About 40 Manila clams
  • 2 tablespoons chopped chives or other herbs
  • Optional: 10 cherry tomatoes or a tablespoon of diced preserved lemon

Steps:

  1. Cook pasta al dente. Follow directions on package but undercook it by 2 minutes.
  2. In a pot or big saucepan, cook the garlic in olive oil over medium heat until the cloves soften and brown.
  3. If using them, add cherry tomatoes and cook for 1 minute.
  4. Add clams and cover pot until clams have opened. (Discard those that remain closed.)
  5. Scoop clams out of the pot and set them aside in a bowl.
  6. Drop pasta in the pot with the clam juice and cook for about 2 minutes over medium heat. You want every pasta strand coated in the clam juice.
  7. Add herbs to the pot and turn off heat.
  8. Return clams to the pot.
  9. Serve immediately.

Tips on Manila clam digging

Clam expert Camille Speck, the Puget Sound intertidal bivalve manager from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, advises:

  • Look for little holes or dimples along the beach and dig there.
  • You need to dig only 2 inches down to find Manila clams. “More than 4 inches down, you’ve gone past the clam.”
  • Remember to refill any hole after you’re done digging.

For Manila clams, Speck recommends the following public beaches:

What to know before you go Manila clam digging

Closures: Some beaches are closed in May to shellfishing. Check the state Department of Health website (doh.wa.gov) before you head out, to make sure the beaches are not closed due to marine biotoxins. For the best day and time to dig for clams, check the tides chart: st.news/tides

License required: Costs range from $11.35 for a one-day pass to $17.40 for an annual permit: st.news/licenses

Catch limit: 40 clams; each must be at least 1.5 inches: st.news/limit

More info: Search for “Manila clam” at wdfw.wa.gov

Info on the beaches to shellfish: st.news/shellfish