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.
The only real bother, 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 this dish. 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 this dish 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 clam sauce! Mi raccomando…
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