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Sometimes when I'm eating a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce, I think to myself, Man, what I really want is to have a bunch of little rocks scattered throughout these noodles. I mean, who doesn't think that? I can't even begin to describe the relief I feel when I finally have a plate of shell-strewn spaghetti alle vongole in front of me and I can futilely tap the tines of my fork against all those stone-like bivalves as I try to disentangle the last strands of pasta from them.
Obviously, I'm kidding. Italy's pasta with clams has the double distinction of being one of the world's great seafood dishes and one of its great pasta dishes. It's just that the way it's often served, with the pasta chock-full of clamshells, is deeply flawed.
I know there are possible rebuttals here. One might argue, for instance, that if I object to clamshells in my pasta, I must also object to them in other dishes, like paella and seafood stews. I'd counter that the shell interacts with broth-y dishes and rice dishes very differently than with pasta, since the shell can scoop up the liquid and rice grains. Shells and long strands of noodle, on the other hand, don't so much as talk to each other on the plate. They just get in each other's way. (Don't even get me started on clamshells on pizza! How the hell are you supposed to eat that?)
Another argument could be that you can serve the pasta in a mound in the center of the plate, then arrange all the clamshells around it in a decorative fashion. This is true—in fact, I've seen it done—but I'd argue that such a presentation, while artful, denies you an essential joy of the dish, which is getting bites of clam meat with each forkful of pasta.
No, I'm convinced that leaving all the clams in their shells does nothing to improve the dish. The solution is simple: Pluck the cooked clams from their shells, then toss them back into the pasta. Save just a few shell-on clams to add as a garnish—an important garnish that, aside from looking nice, lets your guests know they're eating fresh clams and not sauce from a jar. Shelling the clams adds a couple of steps to the process, but the payoff in the improved eating quality of the dish is more than worth it.
If I were to describe the classic white alle vongole sauce, I'd say it's a basic aglio, olio, e peperoncino with clams and white wine added. (There's also a red version, with tomatoes included, but I'm focusing on the white one in this article.) All of the basic principles behind aglio e olio, therefore, apply to this dish as well.
That means starting by very gently cooking the garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil until the oil is infused with their flavor and the garlic is just starting to turn golden. With aglio e olio, the next step would be to add the cooked pasta, along with some of its cooking water. But here, we first want to add white wine to the pan along with the clams, cover, and cook until the clams open and release their briny juices into the sauce.
There are a few important things to know about the clams. First, I tested this recipe with the three types of clams I was able to find: littlenecks, Manila clams, and cockles. Manilas and cockles are smaller than littlenecks, but since we're removing most of the shells, that's not too much of a consideration here. (If, for some strange reason, I did want to serve the pasta full of shells, I'd prefer smaller ones over larger ones.) Flavor-wise, they're pretty similar in the finished dish.
Second, I urge you to purge your clams, a process that helps remove any sand or grit that might be hiding in their shells. If you doubt whether purging is necessary, just take a look at my purging water in the photo below. That's all sand that would have ended up in my pasta sauce had I not gotten it out of the clams first. Purging is easy: Simply let the clams stand in cold, salty water (about as salty as the sea, which means around a 3% solution, though I always just eyeball it). Lift the clams out every 30 minutes, change the water, and repeat until you see no sand or grit in the bottom of the bowl. That could be after the first purge, or the fourth. It just depends on the clams.
Third, discard any clams that are open and refuse to close when you prod them. That's a sign that they're dead, or very near it anyway, and are best avoided.
Back to the covered pan: We have our clams, wine, oil, garlic, and chili flakes all simmering away, the clams popping open one by one as they go to a better plaice. (Sorry, couldn't help myself.) I like to pluck them out and transfer them to a bowl as they open, to avoid overcooking the open clams while waiting for the others to catch up. A lot of people say you shouldn't eat clams that don't open. This is not true: A shut-tight clam is, if anything, the most vigorous and lively one in the pot. It's probably the best one to eat! Keep steaming the clams, and they will eventually open. Sometimes they'll open only a crack, in which case you can use tongs to fully pop the shell.*
* The only exception to this is that, in exceedingly rare instances, you could possibly have a "mudder" in the batch, which is an empty shell filled with mud. It almost never happens with clams from the fishmonger, but can happen if you've dug the clams yourself. Best to open very stubborn shells away from the rest of your food, just in case they're filled with muck.
Once the clams have cooled just enough to handle, you can pluck out their meat and discard the shells, saving just a few shell-in clams per serving for garnish. If the clam meat is from a bigger clam, like a littleneck, I like to chop it up just a bit; smaller clams can be left whole.
At this point, the sauce is ready for the pasta, so you can go ahead and cook it in a pot or a large skillet of boiling water. A skillet offers a lower ratio of water to pasta, which results in starchier water; that will help later when it's time to emulsify the sauce. The one downside of using a smaller vessel like a skillet is that I tend to slosh the water over the edge when I stir, making a mess. Sometimes I use a big pot to minimize spills. Either works.
Because the clams can be salty, though, I recommend salting your pasta water less. Typically, I suggest salting pasta water to 1% (about one tablespoon of Diamond Crystal kosher salt per quart or liter of water), but here I'd err on the side of less salt, given the brininess of the clams. You may have to add a little salt to the pasta later if the clams don't end up adding enough salt on their own, but that's a better option than having to choke down ruined food.
As soon as the pasta is done, transfer it to the skillet with the sauce, along with some of the starchy pasta water, and cook it all together, stirring and tossing rapidly over high heat. The fats in the sauce emulsify with the water, reducing into a creamy coating for the noodles. I'm sometimes inclined to melt a pat of butter into the dish at this point—when is butter ever a bad idea with clams?
When everything is ready, I toss in the clam meat along with the reserved garnish clams, stirring and tossing just long enough to heat them through, then remove the dish from the heat and mix in parsley and a splash of fresh olive oil for flavor.
What you end up with are silky noodles coated in all that briny, garlicky flavor from the pan sauce and studded with tender morsels of the clam itself.
You won't miss the stones, I promise.
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