I’ve had linguini with clam sauce in several restaurants throughout Italy, and no two have been the same. The best versions are simple preparations relying on the distinctive flavors of few ingredients. In this dish, the parsley is not used as a garnish, and it adds an important freshness to the pasta.
Italians consider the pasta to be at least as important as the sauce, and their preparations carefully balance the two. In fact, the sauce is sometimes called “il condimento,” meaning the sauce is secondary to the pasta, which helps explain their obsession with using specific pasta shapes and sizes in particular dishes.
Typically, the pasta is slightly undercooked and is added to the sauce for a couple minutes to incorporate some of the liquid with the pasta.
Since the pasta is so important in this dish, choose high-quality Italian brands made from 100 percent durum semolina flour and look for a rough surface that helps absorb the liquid.
We visited Martelli Pasta (www.famigliamartelli.it), a family-run pasta operation in Lari, a tiny hill town near Pisa. A family member gave us a personal tour, and explained that they use only the finest hard durum wheat from Manitoba! He made a very big deal about the rough surface of his pasta. We brought home several kilograms and have since been able to order from Internet sources.
Makes 4 servings:
- 24–32 littleneck clams (Choose the smallest littlenecks and substitute Manila clams if littlenecks are unavailable.)
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
- 2–4 large garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 pound linguini
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
- 1/2 cup water or dry white wine
Place clams in a large strainer and run cold water through them while shaking the strainer to rid them of surface sand and loose shell fragments. Discard any clams that are open and do not close when tapped.
Soak clams in cold, salted water for 20 minutes or more. If debris is seen, change water and repeat. Strain and rinse the clams.
For the pasta, bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot, adding 2 tablespoons of salt.
Place clams and water or wine into a large sauté pan or frying pan with straight sides. Cover and cook over high heat; remove cover and check after 4–5 minutes, removing and setting aside those that are open. Cover and check every minute or so until all are opened. Discard any that do not open in 10 minutes. The clams will continue to cook in the sauce, so removing them as they just open prevents overcooking.
Add pasta to boiling water and stir.
Strain the clams’ cooking liquid through paper towels and reserve. Wipe sauté pan and heat olive oil over medium heat. Add chopped garlic and pepper flakes and cook, stirring for 3–4 minutes. Do not let garlic brown. Pull sauté pan off heat while pasta cooks.
Check pasta at 6 minutes and continue checking until nearly done. Reserve 3/4 cup of the pasta water; then strain pasta. (Never rinse pasta unless it will be used in a cold dish.)
Add reserved clam broth to the oil and garlic and place over high heat until boiling. Add clams and linguini. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring and adding reserved pasta water if necessary; there should be a small amount of liquid in the pan.
Add freshly ground pepper and salt sparingly because there is considerable salt in the clam broth. Add parsley and serve immediately, drizzling each serving liberally with your finest extra virgin olive oil.
Cheese is never served with this dish in Italy. (Asking for grated cheese for a fish dish in Italy brings the same quizzical look tourists get when they ask for cappuccino after noontime!)
Serve with a mixed salad and crusty bread, along with a dry white wine. Enjoy the taste of the sea in this sparse but flavorful sauce.
Charles Burke is an organic farmer, writer, and avid cook. For more recipes, visit: www.theheartofnewengland.com
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