What's the perfect seafood dish for seaside summer dining? In Italy, a peninsula surrounded by gorgeous Mediterranean waters and beautiful beaches, it's hard to choose just one. But at all the restaurants at all the stabilimenti (beachside establishments) in the country, and trattorie up and down the coasts, the top answer just might be SPAGHETTI ALLE VONGOLE.
Now, the classic Italian version of this is not what many Americans are used to in various red sauce joints in America. This dish, in Italy, is prepared in a manner called "in bianco" -- "in white," meaning without tomatoes, just some olive oil and white wine.
And in this case, it's prepared with the addition of the natural briny "liquor" from the clams as they cook, plus plenty of garlic and butter to finish it off. Lots of fresh chopped parsley keeps it clean-tasting, though you can mix it up and add another fresh herb at the end: basil for a hit of anise flavor, a little thyme or chervil for a French touch, or freshly chopped cilantro for a Portuguese twist. But we're doing it all'italiana today, so we'll stick to flat-leaf (Italian) parsley.
If I were preparing this in Italy, as I've done countless times, I would be using the Italian vongole veraci which are the tiny little clams perfect for this pasta dish, because they're small (so you can put lots in with the pasta), lightweight (their shells are thinner so they cook quickly), and deliciously sweet and saline. But since I've never been able to find them on this side of the Atlantic, we have to do as the Italians would do and use local ingredients -- in this case, cooking in New York, I'm using Littleneck clams from Long Island. I'm also lending a little color to the dish with fresh spinach tagliolini, just for fun. Feel free to play with this basic recipe as you like: once you have the process down, you can swap out various wines and liqueurs for the white wine, use various kinds of oils, herbs, and spices to change the end result. Adding a little chorizo or spicy sausage, for example,though not for purists, does bring the pasta dish to a new level.
So, like most classic cooking, I say this: learn the dish in its original, purest form first. Get that under your belt. And then, feel free to riff and play as you like. All true artists learn the classics first...then they branch out and become the fauves and the cubists, the Twyla Tharps, the improvisational jazz musicians, the comedians with perfect timing, like Italy's own Alberto Sordi...
SPAGHETTI ALLA VONGOLE
3-4 TBS. extra-virgin olive oil
1-2 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped roughly
2-3 lbs fresh clams
½ cup white wine
bunch of parsley (Italian flat-leaf variety)
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Salt & pepper to taste
1 lb. spaghetti (or pasta of choice, usually long pasta)
- In a large bowl/pot of water, add the clams and a healthy bit of salt or cornmeal. Let sit for 10 minutes. Then, using your hands, pick up a handful of clams in each hand, lift them out of the water a bit, and scrub together using the clams themselves to clean the outer shells. Repeat several times.
-Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
-Heat a large skillet over medium heat, and add the garlic and chile flakes to cook for one minute.
- Add the clams and stir a bit. Add the white wine, and cover, cooking over medium-low heat for 3 minutes. Add the salt and pepper to taste, and continue cooking until the shells of the clams have fully opened.
- Add the chopped parsley and the butter to finish the sauce.
-Add a generous toss of salt to the boiling water, and cook the pasta until tender but firm, al dente. Remove pasta from the water with tongs, or drain in a colander and add it to the pan.
- Turn pasta to coat, adding olive oil and/or salt and pepper to taste, and turn to mix thoroughly. Serve at once.