Another year, another lockdown. This one was particularly difficult, maybe because we thought we were turning a corner.
Everyone in my household had finally gotten their second jabs and we could all breathe easier, knowing that even if we did manage to get the dreaded virus, we wouldn’t die or need critical care. Despite that, we found ourselves back at square one fighting to keep from feeling helpless and hopeless.
As usual I channeled my frustration into my work, replenishing stock and coming up with new recipes and products in an effort to give my equally frustrated customers some comfort.
I made Swedish meatballs in cream gravy, crab cakes and spanakopita. I made meatloaf and prawns in drawn butter with lemon, garlic and capers. I made frozen pizzas, blueberry muffins and chocolate chip cookies. My customers were appreciative and we were happy but too exhausted to cook anything decent for ourselves, so we ordered out.
We celebrated my assistant May’s birthday with crab, cupcakes and pancit palabok for the two of us and plump chicken breast fillets for my three furballs. The rest of the time, we would order mediocre takeout or crack open a can. And while caramelized Spam can be a beautiful thing once in a while, a few too many days of overly processed food and greasy takeout left us feeling unhappy and unhealthy.
So finally, I decided to tackle a dish that, for some reason, despite its relative simplicity, I could never get quite right: spaghetti a la vongole. When made well, a white vongole is one of my all-time-favorite pastas. But while I was comfortable executing other much more laborious and complex dishes, my vongole never came out quite right. Too dry, too bland, too salty — somehow I always managed to get something wrong.
Spaghetti A La Vongole
Well, it was time to finally take the bull by the horns, or in this case, the clam by the shell. And once I finally figured out all the things I was doing wrong, it really wasn’t that hard.
Some tips I learned the hard way were to soak your clams in water and change the water at least twice. You can add a lot of things to pasta to make it delicious, but sand isn’t one of them.
Also, cookbooks often advise you to throw any clams that don’t open, but in my experience, I find that cooking most of the stubborn ones for longer eventually yields sweet and juicy meat. So now, I just take them out as soon as they open up, so that the rest of the clams don’t overcook while waiting for the more stubborn ones to give up the ghost.
You should, however, discard those that absolutely refuse to open. I also discard the empty shells whose clams have fallen out, because, like politicians, internet providers and their equally empty promises, they are just a disappointing waste of space.
Next, I set the clams aside and cook the pasta in the sauce before adding the pasta back in. This little trick has made tossing the pasta and sauce so much easier than when you’re grappling with unwieldy clamshells that threaten to break your momentum, your pasta and your spirit as you try in vain to emulsify sauce.
And finally, I only add salt and pepper at the end. I usually like to season as I go since I think that contributes to layers of flavor, but in this case, you don’t know how much salt your clams will give off. So add salt (or not) at the end when you can better determine exactly how much you need.
So, now that you’ve got all these hacks under your belt, you’ve got at least another week in lockdown to make yourself this simple, satisfying and delicious dish. Trust me, you’ll be happy as a clam that you did.
Yield: Serves 4
Active time: 25 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes, plus 1 to 2 hours purging time
2 kgs fresh clams
3 tablespoons (45ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
6 medium cloves garlic, very thinly sliced
Red chili flakes to taste
1/2 cup dry white wine
500 grams spaghetti noodles
1 tablespoon butter
Chopped parsley for garnish
Lemon slices for serving
- Fill a large bowl with cold water and add a handful of salt. Add clams and let stand 30 minutes. Replace water in the bowl and repeat 2 or 3 times. Discard any clams that are wide open and don’t close when you tap them.
- Boil water for pasta. Add salt and pasta when the water is boiling vigorously.
- In a large pot, combine oil with garlic and red chili flakes. Cook over medium heat until garlic is very lightly golden, about 5 minutes.
- Add white wine and clams, cover, and increase heat to high. Transfer clams as they open to a bowl. Discard empty shells but make sure you also transfer any clam meat left in the pot. Remove skillet from heat if necessary until your pasta is ready.
- When your pasta is a couple of minutes short of al dente, transfer to the pot with the sauce. Add a few tablespoons of pasta cooking water and cook over high heat, tossing continuously, until sauce has reduced and emulsified. Add butter and return the clams to the pot.
- Toss pasta with clams, adding more pasta water if your noodles start to dry out. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Garnish with parsley and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Serve immediately with lemon slices, if desired.