Spaghetti with Clam Sauce

Spaghetti alle vongole (Spaghetti with Clam Sauce)

In Campania, pasta, primi piatti by Frank33 Comments

A Friday night favorite at our place—and traditional Christmas Eve primo piatto—is spaghetti with clam sauce, one of the signature dishes of Neapolitan cuisine. It is surprisingly easy to make, fun (if a bit messy) to eat and—if you have some good, fresh clams on hand—really, really tasty.

Ingredients

Serves 4-6 persons

  • 500g (1 lb.) spaghetti (or linguine, if you prefer)
  • 1kg (2 lbs.) clams, the smallest you can find
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic
  • A peperoncino (or red pepper flakes)
  • Olive oil
  • A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely minced
  • Salt and pepper

Optional:

  • A few cherry tomatoes, cut in half

Directions

The only real bother to this dish, if you want to call it that, to the dish is purging the clams of their sand. Even a bit of sand will render the dish inedible. These days clams (like mussels) often come with little or no sand in them, but you can never be entirely sure, so it is best to soak the clams in very well salted water (I add a whole fistful of salt) for at least an hour before cooking. (Some recipes recommend several hours and several changes of water, but I don’t find this necessary these days.) Mixing in a bit of cornmeal is said to encourage the clams to purge their sand.

Rinse off your clams and put them in a saucepan large enough to hold them all with lots of room to spare. Splash in some dry white wine, cover and turn the heat to high. After a minute or two, uncover and mix the clams with a slotted spoon to see if they have opened. Once all of them have, then remove the saucepan from the heat and keep the clams and their juice warm. (Check out the juices; if you see a fair amount of sediment, you may want to strain the juices through a cheesecloth.)

In the meanwhile, being to cook your spaghetti in well salted water. While the spaghetti is cooking, gently sauté some crushed garlic cloves (I like to use 2 cloves per person for this dish) and a peperoncino in a generous amount of fruity olive oil and when the garlic is just beginning to turn color, add a few pomodorini (cherry or grape tomatoes), sliced in half lengthwise, to the oil. Allow them to sauté for just a minute or so, then using a slotted spoon, transfer the clams (still in their shells) into the skillet. Then gently pour over the clam juices, leaving any sediment behind in the saucepan.

Allow the clam juices to reduce a bit, mix well to season and reheat the clams. Add a handful of chopped parsley. At this point, your pasta should be ready; if not, turn off the heat so that the clams do not overcook. When the spaghetti is cooked but still very al dente, add them to the skillet and mix well, simmering the spaghetti for a minute or two to allow them to absorb some of the juice without allowing the dish to dry out.

Serve immediately.

Notes

As for many Italian dishes, the quality of the ingredients that go into the dish are critical to the quality of the dish itself. Use best quality, imported spaghetti—nothing ruins this dish like mushy pasta! The oil should be the deep green, fruity kind. The garlic should be absolutely fresh. And the clams should preferably be the small, sweet variety. In Italy, the clams known as vongole veraci are the most common variety for this dish, although the tiny clams called lupini (not to be confused with lupini beans) are especially prized for their tiny size and sweetness. Elsewhere, I find Manila or ‘short neck’ clams (the latter are pictured above) are excellent; both have the small, thin shells and sweet flesh that you are looking for. In a pinch, littlenecks—although a bit too large—will also do. If you can’t find small clams, you may want to use the clams out of the shell and cut them into pieces. Some very large, hard-shelled clams, however, like the Quahog, are simply too tough to be palatable in this dish. If you don’t have peperoncino on hand, you can used crushed red pepper flakes, but add them only just before adding your claim juice to avoid them burning and turning bitter. Some versions call for black pepper instead.

Besides the right ingredients, there are two key points of technique to bear in mind: Don’t skimp on the olive oil, which should be very abundant to ensure that the pasta has the right ‘slippery’ consistency. And don’t overcook the pasta. Of course, you should never overcook the pasta, but it is absolutely critical for this dish. In fact, as indicated above, you should slightly undercook the pasta as it needs to simmer for a minute or two in the sauce.

In Naples, where this dish originated, the typical pasta is vermicelli, a spaghetti-like long pasta. Spaghetti are probably the most common pasta elsewhere in Italy. And linguine also make for a fine choice.

There are three principal variations of spaghetti with clam sauce. The ‘mother’ recipe follows the method above but is entire in bianco, leaving out the pomodorini. The second version is in rosso, calls for the addition of tomato to the garlic and oil base to make a kind of sugo di pomodoro. The above version, which adds a few pomodorini, represents a kind of middle ground and is my personal favorite, while I find that an actual tomato sauce covers up the delicate taste of the clams. The same technique can be used with just about any mollusk, including mussels. Many Italian recipes call for steaming open the clams directly in the skillet with the garlic and oil, but I find steaming them open separately is a ‘safer’ choice if you have any doubts about lingering sand in the clams.

You can find some rather horrendous versions (I’d call them perversions) of spaghetti with clam sauce online. One common variant among Italian-American sources is the addition of oregano to clam sauce, something to avoid since the assertive taste of oregano completely throws off the balance of flavors. You may be tempted to use bottled minced clams and clam juice, a common ‘shortcut’ often found in online recipes, but frankly, you’ll lose all the charm of the dish. Commercially available minced clams tend to come from larger, tougher clams and lack flavor. And I’ve even seen some recipes that call for using a roux of butter and flour to thicken the sauce—the very thought of it makes me cringe.

One final note: unless you want to commit culinary heresy—and ruin a lovely dish in the process—do not under any circumstances add grated cheese to your spaghetti with clam sauce! Mi raccomando

 

Spaghetti alle vongole (Spaghetti with Clam Sauce)

Rating: 51

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: Serves 4-6

Spaghetti alle vongole (Spaghetti with Clam Sauce)

Ingredients

  • 500g (1 lb.) spaghetti (or linguine, if you prefer)
  • 1kg (2 lbs.) clams, the smallest you can find
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic
  • Olive oil
  • A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely minced
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Purge the clams of their sand by soaking them in very well salted water (I add a whole fistful of salt) for at least an hour before cooking.
  2. Rinse off your clams and put them in a saucepan large enough to hold them all with lots of room to spare. Splash in some dry white wine, cover and turn the heat to high.
  3. After a minute or two, uncover and mix the clams with a slotted spoon to see if they have opened. Once all of them have, then remove the saucepan from the heat and keep the clams and their juice warm.
  4. In the meanwhile, being to cook your spaghetti in well salted water. While the spaghetti is cooking, gently sauté some crushed garlic cloves (I like to use 2 cloves per person for this dish) and a peperoncino in a generous amount of fruity olive oil and when the garlic is just beginning to turn color, add a few pomodorini (cherry or grape tomatoes), sliced in half lengthwise, to the oil. Allow them to sauté for just a minute or so, then using a slotted spoon, transfer the clams (still in their shells) into the skillet. Then gently pour over the clam juices, leaving any sediment behind in the saucepan.
  5. Allow the clam juices to reduce a bit, mix well to season and reheat the clams. Add a handful of chopped parsley.
  6. At this point, your pasta should be ready; if not, turn off the heat so that the clams do not overcook. When the spaghetti is cooked but still very al dente, add them to the skillet and mix well, simmering the spaghetti for a minute or two to allow them to absorb some of the juice without allowing the dish to dry out. Serve immediately.
http://memoriediangelina.com/2009/12/05/spaghetti-alle-vongole/

Comments

  1. Another classic done with class, beauty and grace, Frank, and one perfect for the season. I send my warmest wishes to you and yours for a joyous Christmas and a brilliant 2016.

    1. Author

      Many thanks, Adri. And a new Happy New Year to you, too! Hope your Christmas was full of fun and family.

  2. Beautiful site , beautiful pictures , beautiful food. Your tortellini recipe has inspired me. Thank you

  3. Frank…I want to wish you and your family a wonderful Christmas Season! Love to see your traditional Christmas Eve primo! Beats The Danish tradition of herring for sure which I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole! I wish you could have tasted the spaghetti with clams we ate in Rome. They smoked the tomatoes before making the sauce, then added a lot of garlic and saffron…an awesome dish! Buon Natale e Felice anno Nuovo!

    1. Author

      Lol, I actually like herring, but I know it’s a minority view… 😉 Do have a wonderful Christmas and New Year, Phyllis.

  4. Revisiting. I will be making this sometime this week to offset the richness of the holiday. Cannot do Feast of Seven Dishes as I have Paul’s family for the Eve and they are decidedly Midwestern in their dinner – however, they do have oyster stew! Frank, I love your opinions! Makes me smile!

  5. Although the recipe is simple brilliance, I am giving you a standing ovation here in my kitchen for everything you wrote in the notes!! I wish everyone in the US could read it and take it to heart!! Grazie, Frank!! Love your recipes!

    1. Author

      Thanks, Cristina! Those notes were written from the heart! And the palate… Have a lovely Christmas!

  6. Frank, as always you adhere to the classic preparation focusing on ingredient selection – the hallmark of this wonderful blog. I must admit to giggling at your reference to perversions. Buon Natale.

  7. great dish. here in the uk good clams are rather difficult to get, but mussels are plentiful and cheap and that is what I use. I adopt a slightly different techniques though because I do not like eating pasta and having to pull out the clams/mussels from their shelf (pasta get cold, I find). I pre cook the mussels separately.
    I steam open the mussels in water and white wine or dry vermouth; I remove the mussels and I shell them when they are cold enough to handle: I reduce and filter the juices; I fry some garlic and peperoncino in plenty of oil, I then add the sparsely and the mussels. I let them “insaporire” very, very briefly and I then add the reduced juice. I tend to use spaghettini with seafood. The pasta is tossed into the hot fish sauce and very very briefly “spadellata”. Happy Christmas to everyone. stefano

    1. Author

      Sounds very nice. I’m very fond of mussels, too. By coincidence, Mimmo Corcione just put out a vlog on his YouTube channel for linguine con cozze e pepe. Not too far off your recipe, only he makes his linguine “risottate”. Will have to try both recipes and let you know… 😉

  8. Pingback: A Neapolitan Christmas: Capitone fritto (Fried Eel)

  9. During the season of advent my family ate lots and lots of a version of this dish. We use linguine and canned clams because we couldn't afford fresh clams, but now I spring for them. I love this dish and the wonderful family and holiday memories it brings back. Grazie!

  10. I am glad you made it to the Top 9 on Food Buzz, and able to get your version recipe. THank you! oh yes i really enjoy your blog.

  11. Thanks so much! I am going to follow your instructions! I recently discovered that clams are iron-rich so decided to eat them a lot more often!

  12. This is one of the seven dishes that has been part of our family tradition on Christmas Eve for at least four generations. With such a large family, I was taught to prepare without the shells as you mentioned. Much easier to eat but such a pain to shuck.

  13. very simple but super flavorful pasta dish!
    thanks for the tips on removing the sand in clams. i didnt know cornmeal could be used that way.

  14. I am also going to post on this – maybe for the Feast of Seven Fishes. I love your advice – sometimes I take it for granted that people won't add cheese … or oregano. Hmmmm… never assume. This is delicious. The hardest thing is finding the tiny clams in MN.

  15. I enjoyed reading this post. I'm trying to learn as much as I can about Italian seafood recipes before I go to Sicily for two months to live, eat, write and blog. Thanks for this post.

  16. I'm discovering your blog. Thank you for these italian recipes which make me remember all the wonderful places I visited. Venice, Neaples and Rome are my favourites but in the whole Italy we can admire art and enjoy an exceptional quality of life.
    Anne

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