23 March 2011

Gypsy Kitchens: Linguine with Clams

Last night we made one of the easiest pasta dishes someone can make. We were feeding three - my brother, Luke, is in town - and didn't want to spend a lot of time on dinner. At the grocery, we picked up a kilo of small "vongole veraci," which are also called carpet clams (an unappetizing name). The other ingredients: olive oil, cherry tomatoes, garlic, parsley, lemon zest, red chili flakes and some kind of pasta. We chose linguine, but this dish was very popular in Puglia, where most cooked it with orecchiette. One other ingredient, a splash of whatever (white) wine you are drinking, can be replaced by water or dry vermouth.
The cooking process is fantastically simple. Begin by putting the pasta water on the stove. While it's coming to a boil, rinse the clams well and discard any that are very broken or have opened on their own. In a large pan (larger, in fact than this very big, Lodge skillet) heat up a generous amount of olive oil (1/3 cup, say) with a good dose of chili and the lemon zest. The spice can be varied to suit your taste, but remember that it will be tempered somewhat by being cooked. 1/2 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon zest should be good.
When the oil is quite hot, add the clams and spread them out so that as many of them as possible are touching the pan. Let them sputter and hiss for a minute or two, then splash in a little liquid (wine, water, vermouth). At this point, the shells will begin to open up. You don't have to cover the pan - actually, I would suggest that you keep it uncovered. After a minute or so more, add the cherry tomatoes (quartered), garlic (finely minced) and parsley (however you want it), and stir everything together.
Near the end of the above process, you should have put the pasta into the water. Timing, here, is key - the trick is to undercook the pasta and have it ready to add to the skillet at about the time the clams are done cooking. It NEEDS to be undercooked. This isn't a matter of taste preference, and I'm not talking simply "al dente." The pasta needs to be pretty underdone because it is going to continue to cook in the skillet.
As the clams open up, they release liquid into the pan along with the wine and the tomato juice. It's a good idea to keep the heat somewhat low (medium, really) so that the liquid doesn't boil off. When you add the pasta to the skillet, it's important to mix well so that it gets right down into the juice. The liquid will be absorbed, giving taste and creaminess to the starch.
When the liquid is mostly gone and the pasta is done, scoop it out onto plates and serve right away. The taste is terrific - it's a great way to accentuate both the flavor of the clams and the taste of the linguine (or orecchiette, or spaghetti...) without muddying the dish up with other notes. We ate it perhaps too fast, followed by a delicious salad that Rebecca made: fennel, apple, parsley, pecorino and lambstongue greens.

For those of you who'd like a simpler, more linear version of the recipe-
2 pounds small clams
1 pound pasta
1/3 cup olive oil
3 garlic cloves, crushed and minced
8-12 cherry tomatoes, quartered
1/4 cup parsley
1/4 cup wine, water or vermouth
1 teaspoon lemon zest*
Red chili flakes to taste

- Begin to bring pasta-water to a boil.
- In the largest pan you have, heat the oil with the lemon zest and chili flakes until very hot.
- Add the clams and cook for two minutes. Add wine, then cook further, uncovered, until most clams are open.
- Start cooking pasta.
- Add tomatoes, garlic and parsley to cooking clams, reducing heat if too much liquid is being lost.
- When pasta is about two minutes away from being al dente, strain and add to clams. Mix everything together well. After two to five minutes - or when most of the liquid has been absorbed and the pasta is done - remove from heat and serve.

*Note: when you zest a lemon, make sure that the fruit is either unwaxed or that you have scrub-cleaned the peel under very hot water.

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