Linguini with Clam Sauce
I have fond memories of going “clamming” on the Atlantic shore as a child. We would go to a nice muddy spot on the shore during low tide and wiggle our feet down into the mud until we could feel a clam and then dig it up. Sometimes my dad would just setup a little campfire by the shore and we would cook the clams and eat them within minutes of being harvested. Delicious!
Living in the landlocked Berkshires we have to depend on our local fish markets to harvest the clams for us. Luckily, they are available year-round. Although most commercially available clams and mussels have already been cleaned and filtered, you want to make sure that the clams have purged out any residual sand they have inside of their shells. Because clams spend their lives buried in the mud they often have a little sand in their shells and nothing is worse than chewing some sandy grit while eating clams.
When purchasing clams for linguini and clam sauce, buy small “cherrystone” clams that are a uniform size so they all cook at the same rate. I always make sure that my fishmonger is VERY careful when choosing each individual clam and that he places them carefully into the bag. Don’t let him just grab a handful and drop them in. They should first make sure that each clam is tightly closed and does not have a chipped or broken shell. If any clams are a little open, when they are gently tapped they should “clam up” and close their shells showing that they are alive and well.
When you get home, scrub the clam shells with a stiff brush under cool tap water to clean off any sand or grit that is stuck to the outside. If any clams arrive chipped or broken, toss them out. To purge any sand from the insides put the clams in a large bowl filled with salty water. Fresh water kills clams. You want to simulate actual seawater by dissolving 7 teaspoons of sea salt to every 4 cups (1 liter) of cool tap water. The salt water should completely cover the clams. Let them sit quietly for at least 30 to 60 minutes. By this time, the filter-feeding clams should have opened their shells a tiny bit to siphon in some of the salty water while spitting out any sand they have inside their shells.
Carefully remove the clams without disrupting the sediment at the bottom of the bowl and toss out the salt water. You will probably see a lot of sandy grit at the bottom of the bowl. This is a great sign! It means the clams have done a good internal rinse. Rinse the clams’ outer shells again under tap water and set them aside, covered with a damp paper towel, until ready to cook.
Although there are commercially available cans of premade “white clam sauce” – I think they all have a chemical taste so I make my own. It’s a simple recipe that lets the fresh ocean flavor of the clams shine through. Do NOT be tempted to use canned baby clams rather than fresh clams - to put it bluntly, they taste weird.
LINGUINI with CLAM SAUCE
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
8 oz bottle Snows/Bumble Bee Clam Juice, shaken
1 tablespoon butter
24 to 30 small cherrystone clams, scrubbed and purged
1 pound linguini
2 teaspoons freshly chopped parsley, (optional) for serving
Freshly ground pepper or ground paprika, (optional for serving)
In a large pot boil and cook the linguini until al dente. You want to time the linguini to be done at the same time as the sauce that will take between 10-15 minutes.
While the linguini is cooking, in a large pan heat the olive oil until shimmering. Sauté the onion and garlic until soft and translucent.
Add the cup of white wine and simmer to reduce slightly, about 1 minute.
Add the clam juice, oregano, Old Bay seasoning, and red pepper flakes (if you like a little heat) and stir well to combine.
Place the clams on top of the sauce in a single layer, cover the pan and cook until the clams open, about 5 to 10 minutes. Shake the pan periodically. I generally peek every couple of minutes and remove the clams that have already opened.
Put the cooked clams in a bowl (keeping the sauce in the pan) and cover the clams with foil to retain their warmth for a couple of minutes. Discard any clams that have not opened, as they may have “given up the ghost” before they were cooked and are inedible. Add the tablespoon of butter to the sauce and stir to thicken.
Drain the cooked linguini and stir it into the pan with the sauce to coat the pasta.
Serve the pasta in individual bowls, pouring any remaining sauce over the pasta. Top with clams and a little parsley, freshly ground pepper or paprika. Make sure you have a side bowl for discarding the shells.
Side note: Although you probably serve cheese with every pasta dish, purist Italian tradition says never put cheese on a fish dish as the delicate taste of seafood may be overwhelmed by the more aggressive flavor of cheese. Your house – your rules. Serve with a little grated cheese on the side if you prefer.