Spaghetti alle vongole (clams)
My other passion, apart from cooking and eating, is reading detective books. A favourite author is Timothy Holme whose detective, Achille Peroni, is the ‘Rudolph Valentino’ of the Italian police. Not only does Comissario Peroni hunt down murderers, but he is also on a quest to find the best spaghetti alle vongole that Venice has to offer.
I too have been on a quest to find the best recipe to make spaghetti alle vongole as it’s surprisingly hard to get right. There are only six ingredients so it’s all about the cooking technique to create a briny, seafood tasting dish where the pasta has absorbed all the flavour from the clams. The secret (which was explained to me by my Italian best friend) is to half cook the spaghetti in the normal way, in salted boiling water, and then finish off the cooking in the clam liquor (the liquor is released when the clams are cooked). The clam liquor gives the pasta the most intense flavour. A final ingredient to finish the dish, another tip from a serious Italian cook, is to add a little richness with a small amount of butter stirred through at the end.
The only problem is finding the clams. If you ever see them in a fishmonger, scoop them up and give this recipe a go – you will not be disappointed. I only tend to cook this dish when I’m on holiday in Italy or France where clams are piled high in every fish market.
I made this dish for Atticus, my eldest son, when he was 8 months old on his first holiday to Le Marche in Italy. I chopped up his portion of spaghetti into tiny morsels and cut the clams in half (they are already tiny). He inhaled the lot.
Use a really good quality pasta as it will have a strong enough texture to take up all the flavour from the clams.
Miraculous ingredients: Fresh clams, white wine, good quality spaghetti (Giuseppe Cocco is excellent)
Spaghetti alle vongole
1kg fresh clams
½ glass of white wine (the same quality as you would drink!)
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
¼ fresh red birds eye chilli, finely chopped
20g fresh parsley, finely chopped
4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
400g spaghetti (Giuseppe Cocco is very good)
Prepare the clams first. Give the clams a quick rinse in running water and then tip in a sauce pan which has a close fitting lid. Add the white wine. Place the sauce pan with the lid on, on a medium heat. After a couple of minutes, stir the clams with a wooden spoon to make sure the ones on the top move to the bottom of the pan. The clams are ready when all the shells are fully open, about 5 minutes.
Lift the open clams with a slotted spoon out of the sauce pan into a large bowl and then carefully pour the clam liquor (the juice and wine mix) from the sauce pan into a measuring jug and reserve for later. Any grit or sand (from inside the clams) will sink to the bottom of the jug and can then be discarded after the cooking liquor is used. Remove some of the clams from their shells so you have a nice mix of clams with/without shells in the final dish.
Place a large pan that can hold a good 3 litres of water and a teaspoon of salt onto a high heat. When the water starts to boil add all the spaghetti. Set the timer to cook the spaghetti for about ½ of its cooking time (5 minutes instead of 9 minutes for the brand I use). The spaghetti will finish cooking in the reserved clam liquor to give it even more flavour.
Put a large deep frying pan (which also has a tight fitting lid) on a medium heat and add all the olive oil. Add the finely chopped garlic, chilli and parsley and cook for 1 minute. Don’t let the garlic brown and release any bitterness. Carefully pour in the clam liquor without adding the sediment from the bottom and warm it up, about 2 minutes.
When the timer for the spaghetti goes off after ½ of the cooking time has elapsed, add all the spaghetti to the large frying pan of garlic, parsley, chilli and clam liquor - the liquor should just cover all the spaghetti. If there is not enough clam liquor, add some of the pasta water (I usually add about 1 espresso cup of pasta water). Stir everything together, put the lid on, reduce the heat to low and leave to cook for the remaining time (with the brand I use it's about another 5 minutes).
Once the spaghetti is al dente (soft on the outside but slightly hard in the middle), turn off the heat, mix in the clams, butter and serve immediately.
Preparation time 15 minutes, cooking 15 minutes, serves 4