Whenever I travel, I always come back with lots of culinary inspiration and always with one perfectly captivating dish I just have to re-create. A taste of southern Spain for me will always be a fideua, a taste of London is a scone with clotted cream and perfectly bitter orange marmalade, the Scotland summed up in a juicy, rare lamb chop…
I ate an array of amazing food in Italy this summer but one taste was so vivid, so unforgettable and so purely satisfying that I couldn’t get it out of my mind. To think that a dish so simple can be the one most perfect byte to sum up all of Mediterranean coast cuisine…
As I am pouring over my past menus, cook books and recipe ideas to come up with yet another ambitious and barely executable Thanksgiving menu, I was craving simplicity. And since I am again allowed to cook Italian food by my oh-so-spoiled family, I went to re-create the perfect byte of Italy – a simple spaghetti and clams.
It takes 5 ingredients to make it and about 15 minutes and if done right it becomes a dish you will crave over and over again. It truly celebrates the essence of Amalfi coast cuisine, simple, great ingredients put together with love and tradition of centuries.
If you can get your hands on the wild Mediterranean clams, you are in luck… for the rest of make do with whatever your fish monger can master up. You want the smallest clams you can find, the cockles or vongoles, little necks or the multitude of small clams from the Pacific that I am not too familiar with. Anything wild caught will taste much better than farmed and god forbid you to use anything preserved.And if you ever bought clam juice in a bottle, please don’t do it again. It takes 30 seconds to get the real thing out of your clams and the taste cannot be compared to the bottled crap.
Now let’s talk pasta. There is a reason why pasta comes in two varieties, fresh and dried. One is not better than other, each has its purpose and I got a good lesson of which to use when while I was in Italy. Fresh pasta is great with thicker sauces, such as tomato or cream and cheese based. For seafood light sauces and broth type sauces you never want to use fresh pasta. It will become soggy and the idea is to have the toothy (al dente) texture offset the sauces with less body. This dish demands dry pasta and not the whole wheat variety, not the egg enriched pasta but the honest to goodness old-fashioned spaghetti made with semolina flour and water… And why spaghetti? Again, the 2,000 pasta shapes out there all have a reason or more importantly a science of holding whichever sauce they are made to carry. Ridged, short pasta is a perfect vessel for a meat ragout, a nice bucatini is perfect for spicy Amatriciana or a fra Diavolo. Linguini is great with larger seafood and broth such as shrimp and muscles, but is too thick for a delicate clam dish. Spaghetti is perfect, not too thick, and not too thin, holds the sauce but does not “carry” it, a wound up fork fool is proportionate to the size of an average clam… in one word perfect.
I know, it may all be too scientific and too thoughtful, after all I was advocating the simplicity and food should not be so complicated. So without further complications, here is the recipe to the dish I crave every single day since coming home.
Spaghetti and clams
3 lbs of small wild clams
1 lb dry spaghetti1.5 cups of dry white wine
8 cloves of garlic minced
Extra virgin Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Chopped parsley for garnish
Place all your clams in a large container and hold under a running cold water for at least 10-15 minutes. This will help get rid of a lot of sand. Than arrange all clams in one layer on a bottom of a shallow pan with a good lid. Add just ¼ cup of water to the pan, cover and place of a low medium heat for 2-3 minutes. Turn off the heat and let stand covered for another 2-3 minutes. This allows the clams to open and release all the juice but not cook all the way. Remove the clams and set aside. Strain the clam juice through a cheese cloth to remove the remaining sand and set aside. Drop your pasta into heavily salted boiling water.
Clean the pan that you cooked the clams in ( you may still have a bit of sand in it). Heat 2 tbs of olive oil and add all the garlic, sauté on low heat until garlic just becomes soft. Add back all the clams and the white wine, cook on low-medium heat for 1 min, add the reserved clam juice and cook for 2 minutes more. Add the black pepper and the salt if needed. The amount of salt will depend on the how briny your clams are, sometimes the juice they release is quite salty so taste the broth before you season it.
At this point your pasta should be perfectly al dente, drain it and add it to the clams pan. Toss in the broth for a few seconds and don’t forget to add the parsley. Drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil and garnish with a bit more parsley.