Not long ago, I had a hankering for seafood, so I woke up bright and early to beat the crowds to arrive at the Mercado Central. I was on the prowl for machas, razor clams, which are indigenous to Chilean shores and one of the most popular shellfish. When I arrived to my monger’s stall I was taken aback that there were literally no offerings. What was going on?
“Mi casera”, Javier told me in a sweet voice, “you know there’s been a rain storm for the past 2 days. The ports are closed, the fishermen haven’t worked. We regrettably have no seafood to sell you until next week”.
I thought back to the last two days. Barely an inch of rain had fallen in the capital. Sure, given the jerry-built pavement at many intersections, some havoc-causing pools of water were created. However, it didn’t seem like a big enough natural event to shut down the local fishing industry. Apparently so.
I returned home empty-handed with my cooking inspiration nuked and the hankering still intact. This morning I arose again to stormy-looking skies and a warm wind (uncommon in Santiago) whirling the leaves. Rain was coming again. Not wanting to get burnt a second time, I marched off to procure my razor clams. I could almost taste those machas a la parmesana, baked razor clams with cheese, in my mouth already. This time I scored. As I waited patiently while my monger shucked and cleaned a kilo of clams, I tried to remember how many times I have eaten this dish in Chile, and specifically on the coast. Countless.
I am not alone. Most Chileans are immediately transported to the coast when they think of, and crave, this dish. The crashing thunder of the waves of the wild Pacific; that nippy, refreshing breeze; and the invigorating marine air that wafts of salt and pines lining the shoreline.
This recipe sticks to its classic recipe yet plays a little with the type of cheese. Machas a la Parmesana exudes divine simplicity underscores that good, fresh ingredients need little doctoring—only a few flavor accents and texture contrasts. This dish also proves the amazing synergy between sweet razor clams and tangy cheese. If you cannot find machas at home, do not fret. You can try this with steamers, or even scallops. The clams must be tender so avoid tougher varieties of clams like littleneck or cherrystones.
While the traditional recipe uses Chilean-made Parmesan cheese, which is milder than its Italian father, Parmigiano-Reggiano, I like to use artisan goat cheese from Ovalle which is semi-mature. I find it marries better with the clams since it doesn’t overwhelm them and has a tanginess that demands a lemony, zesty, sparky Sauvignon Blanc from the coast. Whichever cheese route you choose, I love how the sweet, slightly metallic taste of the machas melds with that nutty, tangy, milky essence of the cheese. So. Darn. Good.
2 pounds razor clams (about 24-30 depending on the size)
2 tablespoons butter (go for the good artisan quality if possible), melted
Juice of one fresh lemon
¼ cup dry white wine
½ cup grated semi-mature goat cheese, or use a mix of Havarti and Parmesan for a milder Chilean-style taste
2 tablespoons minced chives (garnish)
Sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste
- Preheat the oven to 350F.
- To prepare the clams (if your monger won’t do this), scrub to remove any sand. To shuck, hold between a thick kitchen towel while working a small knife between the two shells at the point of the hinge. Twist and pry open. Remove the clam to the bowl. If using actual machas, gently squeeze top to remove the black sack (digestive tract which is full of sand). Then, give the pointed part shaped like a tongue a gentle whack with the side of your knife. This helps tenderize the clam so it melts in your mouth. If the machas are small, it may not be necessary but definitely do this for larger ones. Rinse well and reserve the meat.
- Rinse half of the shells and dry with paper towels. On an oven tray lined with aluminum foil, arrange the shells next to each other. Place one clam in each shell.
- Combine the melted butter, lemon juice, and white wine. I usually just heat this quickly in the microwave. Drizzle over the clams and season with a touch of salt and pepper (don’t go crazy with the salt since the cheese has salt in it). Distribute the grated cheese evenly among the clams. At this point, if you’re prepping for a party or dinner, you can wrap the tray in aluminum foil and hold in your fridge for a few hours so all you need to do is pop it in the oven.
- Bake for 4-5 minutes until the cheese has melted and the clams have turned from a grayish opaque hue to rosy pink. Do not overcook or they will become rubbery. As a general tip, when you put them in the oven, have a heated serving dish ready to go since you want to eat these hot. You can tent them with heavy-duty aluminum foil, once out of the oven, to retain some heat.
- As soon as you remove them from the oven, garnish with the chives and make sure you have a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in your hand. Enjoy!