Food & Drink

Spicy Southern Clams

A swim in cumin-spiced sofrito and a steam in vermouth-scented broth give these clams a kick

Photo: JOHNNY AUTRY, Styling by Charlotte Autry

Southerners who love bivalves can be deeply particular about the provenance of their oysters. But clams? Not so much.

At Watchman’s Seafood and Spirits, a cheery Southern sustainable-seafood restaurant in Atlanta from the team behind Kimball House, chef Daniel Chance is hoping to change that. All of the fish he cooks there has a story. The kitchen can trace the snapper to the fishing boat that pulled it from the Gulf of Mexico and knows the day-to-day state of the stone crab fishery off the coast of Florida. “We want to save some for the next guy,” Chance says.

As a way to give Southern clams their due, Chance created a dish that has become a breakout star on the menu. He starts with clams farmed on the shores of South Carolina and steams them in sweet vermouth and sofrito, then ladles it all over a thick slice of grilled sourdough and showers the bowl with fresh herbs.

The clams come from Dave Belanger, a Charleston fish purveyor nicknamed Clammer Dave. He’s one of a handful of clammers who raise a type of indigenous hard-shell clam found all along the Eastern Seaboard—the Mercenaria mercenaria. Once Belanger digs them from the pluff mud, he sets them in baskets and floats them in the ocean so they can purge themselves of any grit. He delivers them so tightly packed in mesh that each bag feels like a rock. The tighter the clams are packed, Belanger says, the less likely they are to leak the precious fluid that keeps them alive—a tip home cooks can use when buying clams at the store.

Johnny Autry

Chance got his first taste of seafood during vacations with his dad on St. Simons Island, Georgia. “I grew up with him feeding me clams and oysters,” he says. He toggled between Colorado and Georgia as a kid, and took his first cooking job when he was in high school in Atlanta. But it wasn’t until he started cooking at Bacchanalia that he really developed a way with seafood. The owner, chef Anne Quatrano, thought he was so good with fish that in 2015 she tapped him to open W.H. Stiles Fish Camp, her restaurant in Ponce City Market. Three years later, he had the opportunity to launch Watchman’s.

His clam dish is a breeze to make. Preparing the sofrito, a ground mixture of garlic, red bell pepper, onion, and tomato scented with cumin, is easy with a food processor, though cooks who want even less work can buy jarred instead. And since the recipe produces a generous amount of buttery sauce , you’ll want to have extra bread ready for dipping. “Trust me on this,” Chance says. “You will want to bathe in it.” 


  • Yield: 2-4 servings

    • 2 tbsp. canola oil

    • ⅓ cup sofrito (recipe follows, or use jarred)

    • 1 tbsp. minced garlic

    • 2 lb. littleneck clams, scrubbed clean

    • ¼ cup diced tomato

    • ½ cup sweet vermouth

    • 1½ cups chicken or fish stock

    • 2–4 thick slices sourdough bread, toasted

    • 2 tbsp. hot sauce, such as Crystal or Texas Pete

    • 2 tbsp. lemon juice

    • ½ cup chopped cilantro

    • ½ cup chopped culantro

    • Salt and black pepper

  • For the Sofrito

    • 2 garlic cloves

    • 1 red bell pepper, seeded

    • 1 sweet onion

    • 1 large tomato

    • ¼ cup canola or vegetable oil

    • 1½ tsp. dried oregano

    • 1½ tsp. ground cumin

    • ½ bay leaf

    • Salt

  • For the Maître d’ Butter

    • ¼ lb. (1 stick) butter, softened

    • 1 shallot, minced

    • 1 tbsp. lemon juice

    • ½ tsp. Dijon mustard


  1. Pour oil into a large Dutch oven over high heat, then add sofrito, garlic, clams, and tomatoes. Cook until clams are well coated in sofrito and garlic starts to brown. Add vermouth and stock and bring to a boil, then cover until clams open (about 5–7 minutes). Discard any clams that remain closed.

  2. Place slices of toasted bread in bottom of serving bowls. Remove clams from broth with slotted spoon and place on top of bread. Turn heat to high, and reduce broth for about 5 minutes. Lower heat to medium and stir in butter, hot sauce, and lemon juice. Allow the sauce to thicken slightly, stirring occasionally, for a few more minutes.

  3. Remove from heat, stir in herbs, and add salt and pepper to taste. Ladle sauce over clams and bread.

  4. For the sofrito:

    Place all ingredients in food processor and puree. Simmer the mixture in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it is close to a paste (30 minutes or so). Add at least 1/4 teaspoon salt.


  5. For the Maître d’ Butter: Mix all ingredients until well incorporated.

Meet the Chef: Daniel Chance

Hometown: Atlanta

Item in his kitchen that means the most to him: A collection of vintage cleavers from the turn of the last century. “I’m really into antiques, especially culinary antiques.”

Favorite music to cook by:  “I have a tendency to listen to eighties music and punk rock.” That often translates to the Ramones, Joy Division, or Fugazi.