Digging clams and cooking them on the beach instilled in chef Brendan McGill a love of Bainbridge Island and inspired him to return and open his restaurant, Hitchcock.

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WHEN BRENDAN MCGILL and Heidi Williams were dating 12 years ago, they dug clams on the Williams’ historic beach property on Bainbridge Island, now Williams-Olson Park. Back then, Carl Hitchcock Williams, Heidi’s father, was in charge of the cookouts, and he showed Brendan how the family had steamed clams on Manzanita Bay for 100 years. Brendan fell in love not only with Heidi, but also with Bainbridge Island.

Chef Brendan McGill was inspired to open his restaurant, Hitchcock, after digging clams and cooking them over an open fire with his future wife’s family. (John Lok/The Seattle Times)

“Digging clams from the beach and cooking them in the old steel pot over the fire was a seminal moment for me,” says McGill, an Alaska native. “It instilled the love for Bainbridge Island and inspired me to return and open my own restaurant.”

After the cookouts on Bainbridge, McGill went on to cook hundreds of pounds of clams a week at Il Bistro in Pike Place Market and then worked as a chef at The Harvest Vine. In 2010, he opened the award-winning Hitchcock on Bainbridge Island, named after family homesteaders on the island. He and Heidi moved to the island in 2012.

Today, steaming clams is a tradition he and Heidi continue with their two sons, often on the Fourth of July. To McGill’s knowledge, the family recipe had never been written down, so he created his own version of the generations-old method. The clams cook in minutes. Making a potful is actually quite easy, and it’s a great way to feed a crowd.

“We eat them right out of the pot and all dive in,” he says. “I’m a big fan of using the shells to scoop the broth from the pot and suck the clams out of the shells. And you have to dunk the grilled bread in the buttery broth. It’s absolutely critical.”

Even if you don’t have access to a beach on the Fourth, and even if it rains, you can still make McGill’s recipe in your kitchen. The clams, steamed in wine, butter and leeks, are perfect paired with bread and traditional favorites like potato salad and corn on the cob. With some striped cloth napkins and American flag decorations, you just might feel like you’re at a clambake on the beach, after all.

Steamer Clams

Serves 8-10

 

6 pounds manila or butter clams, rinsed well

1 leek, white part only, julienned or thinly sliced

6 good-sized garlic cloves, sliced in half, any hard stem removed, then sliced very thin

1 fresh bay leaf

1 lemon, quartered

1 750-ml bottle dry white wine (unoaked chardonnay preferably)

1 heaping tablespoon kosher Diamond salt

1 pound cultured butter, room temperature, cubed and separated

Sourdough baguette

A fistful of Italian flat-leaf parsley leaves

1. Arrange clams, leeks, garlic, bay leaf and lemon in a steamer pot. Add the wine, salt and ¾ of the butter.

2. With the lid on, place the pan over intense heat (stovetop or fire pit) until the wine is roiling hard and steam is escaping from the lid. Every couple of minutes, lift the lid and check on the clams. Stir gently with tongs to redistribute the clams. Cook just until they open.

3. While the shellfish are steaming, cut the baguettes lengthwise and spread on the remaining butter. Grill the bread on both sides over hot coals, or broil in your oven. Slice the bread into 2-inch chunks.

4. Remove the steamer lid and garnish with a chiffonade of parsley. Serve clams out of the pot or distribute into individual bowls. Dunk the grilled bread in the broth.

— Brendan McGill