About once a month, a hankering for linguine with white clam sauce sneaks up from behind, taps me on the shoulder and tells me to pull up a chair at the nearest Italian restaurant so I can order a big, steaming bowl. The most memorable of these sneak-attacks was after my mother and I had seen a movie starring Bill Crystal and Robert DeNiro in which DeNiro, surprise surprise, portrays an Italian mob boss. The movie was rather forgettable - but the scene that starred a mountain of linguine with white clam sauce clearly stayed with us because right after exiting the theater we went on a mission for that sauce. Many miles and a few restaurants later, we silently scraped clams and twirled our forks around mouthfuls of linguine.
Like so many great Italian dishes, the beauty of this meal is in its simplicity - which also means that the raw ingredients have to be quality. For a finger-licking briny clam sauce, that means getting some really good clams. Mine were fresh from coastal Long Island and I picked them up from the fishmongers at the greenmarket on Saturday. I had really good intentions of cooking them on Sunday - but then as life is sometimes wont to do - something better came up and we skipped the clam sauce Sunday night.
Did I fret about the fresh clams chilling in my fridge? Nay, I did not. Because Andy, the fishmonger, shared some helpful tips for keeping the clams fresh. He told me to put them in a metal bowl - no fresh water because the clams would drown - covered with a damp kitchen towel. And never put them directly on ice because the fresh water left by the melting ice cubes would also kill them. If stored dry in a metal bowl, they'll apparently stay fresh for 5-7 days in the fridge. Now, I'm not going to tell you I'd be all that comfortable with eating clams that have been in my fridge for a week, but I can tell you that they tasted fresh from the sea by the time I got around to making this meal - and that was 4 days after I had purchased them.
Once you're ready to cook the clams, be sure to carefully sort them. Any clams, and this goes for mussels too, with broken shells should never see your pot - you should toss them. Once sorted, use a veggie brush to give them a serious scrub-down and then immerse them in cold water for 15-20 minutes. You'll find that any remaining sand or silt will fall to the bottom of the bowl, which is a good thing, because that means all that sand or silt won't end up in the bottom of your sauce. Scoop the clams from the water and they're ready to go.
Because I have no issue with pairing garlic with garlic, I ate my garlicky clam sauce with broccoli rabe, sizzled in garlic oil and eaten straight up. Some folks blanch their broccoli rabe before sautéing it to remove some of its bitterness - but I like the bitter, so I skip that step.
For 4 people
What you'll need:
3 dozen littleneck clams (8-9 per person), cleaned
5 large garlic cloves, finely minced
4 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp minced chili OR red chili flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 handful fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 cup pasta water
1 lb spaghetti or linguine
Salt and black pepper
In a large pot of boiling water, drop your spaghetti or linguine to cook until al dente.
In a skillet wide enough to fit the clams almost in a single layer, add the olive oil, garlic and chili. Sauté over medium low heat for a few minutes, until the garlic starts to turn golden brown and becomes fragrant.
Turn the heat up a touch and add the white wine, then the clams and half of the chopped parsley.
Immediately cover the clams with a tightly fitting lid. Let the clams steam for roughly 8-10 minutes, this depends on the size of your clams, how jam-packed the skillet is, etc.
After 8 minutes, remove the lid and with a slotted spoon or tongs, remove any clams that have opened - set them in a bowl to the side. Keep the lid on for a few more minutes to continue cooking any clams still unopened.
**Any clams that are unopened by the time most of the other clams have cooked, after 12-15 minutes, should be discarded.
Add 1/4 cup of starchy pasta water to the skillet with the clam sauce and the remaining chopped parsley. Taste and season with a bit of black pepper and salt if needed.
Drain the pasta and drop it directly into the clam sauce, tossing a couple of times to coat the pasta in sauce. Transfer the cooked clams, shells and all, back into the pasta and sauce and serve.
The juices from the clams are quite salty, so be careful about how much salt you add to the clam sauce, it should need very little.
If you find the prospect of eating a dish filled with clam shells unappetizing, you can remove the clam meat from the shell and simply toss the meat back into the sauce.