Why It Works
- Soy sauce adds an umami roundness to the dish, providing glutamates that complement the inosinate inherent in clams and clam juice, making the dish much more savory.
- Butter adds dairy richness to the sauce.
- Finishing the pasta in the sauce thickens it and imbues the pasta with some clam flavor.
- Celery leaves, more than just being a visual accoutrement, are quite flavorful and add a bit of freshness to offset the clam flavor.
It's tempting to claim that this recipe for clam sauce, made with canned clams, is a product of coronavirus.
It would be easy to frame it as a nimble pivot on the part of our recipe team—particularly a specific, man-of-the-people recipe team member (me)—to address the needs of a readership that finds itself increasingly relying on dried pasta and canned products to provide sustenance in variety during this time of isolation. Yes, past Serious Eats pasta recipes may have struck the reader as being needlessly prescriptive and haughtily proscriptive, oozing with condescension for those who prefer their noodles to actually be cooked rather than briefly warmed and wet in the manner Italians call "al dente"—the horror—and to frequently raise the question: "Why the fuss? Isn't it just pasta?" But with the advent of the crisis, the framing would go, in a time of desperately needed understanding and accommodation, Serious Eats chose the enlightened path and decided to unburden itself of silly Italianate pretension about noodles, which the Chinese do better anyway.
Alas, I can't frame it that way. While the Chinese indeed do noodles better, our plan to publish this recipe was hatched many, many months ago, when I was looking through our pasta recipe archive and realized we didn't have a recipe for clam sauce made from canned clams. When we decided to do a whole month of dried-pasta related work, I made the case for this humble recipe, which, I argued, the people, our readers, would love, just as I love it, and for the same reasons: It is clammy—and I love clams; it is easy—and I love easy; it is fast—who doesn't love fast?
Is it better than spaghetti alle vongole in bianco? No, no one could possibly say that, as a freshly steamed clam is a thing of beauty beyond compare, its meat plump and slippery, both soft and chewy at the same time, its juices clear and bracingly saline, the epitomic taste of the cold, clean sea. But is it pretty tasty and clammy and fast? Yes. And it's perfect for when you need a little clam fix but there are no fresh clams to be had for miles and miles around.
This recipe is pretty close to the way I have made this dish for about 20 years, since I was in high school. In the spirit of allowing pretty much anything—the same generous spirit that Daniel and Sasha appear to have adopted in allowing this recipe to be published—know that adding a few chopped anchovies or a couple slices of bacon cut into tiny strips at the beginning will change the dish in favorable ways, if you like those flavors, but the only things I've found necessary over the years are the amount of butter, the garlic, celery and its leaves, the fresh parsley, and a splash of soy sauce for a more rounded savory flavor, courtesy of the glutamates.
Oh, and a big squeeze of lemon and fresh ground black pepper at the end really never hurt.
- 4 tablespoons (60g) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces and divided
- 2 celery ribs (5 oz; 140g), peeled (optional) and cut into small dice
- 2 medium shallots (60g), minced
- 1/2 cup (30g) finely chopped fresh parsley leaves, divided
- 4 medium garlic cloves (15g), finely minced
- 1 fresh green Thai chili (4g), thinly sliced (optional, see note)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Two (8-ounce; 237ml) bottles clam juice
- Two (6.5-ounce; 184g) cans chopped or minced clams, clams and liquid divided
- 1 lb (450g) spaghetti
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) soy sauce
- Kosher salt
- Celery leaves (pale yellow-green leaves from the celery heart), for garnish
- Lemon wedges, for serving
In a 12-inch stainless steel skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat, and swirl pan until foaming subsides. Add celery, shallots, half the parsley (1/4 cup; 15g), garlic, Thai chili (if using), and a couple healthy grinds of black pepper to pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft and mixture is fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add bottled clam juice along with liquid from canned clams but not the clam meat. Increase heat to high and bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer until liquid is slightly reduced and vegetables have infused broth, about 5 minutes—there should be enough liquid in the pan to fully submerge the pound of cooked pasta. Turn off heat and add clam meat and soy sauce.
In a pot of salted, boiling water, cook spaghetti, stirring frequently, until about 4 minutes shy of the way you like your pasta cooked (some would say "al dente"). When spaghetti is almost at that point of doneness, bring pan of clam sauce to a boil over high heat.
Using tongs, transfer spaghetti to pan with clam sauce, distributing pasta so it is mostly submerged in sauce. Cook, tossing and stirring occasionally, until pasta is cooked to your liking and sauce has thickened slightly, about 4 minutes. Taste for seasoning, and add salt if necessary.
Turn off heat, add remaining butter and parsley, and toss and stir spaghetti vigorously to incorporate parsley and emulsify butter into sauce. Divide pasta among four serving plates, spooning sauce and clams evenly over each portion. Garnish with celery leaves, and serve immediately, passing lemon wedges, for squeezing, at the table.
12-inch stainless steel skillet
Thai chili is used just to bring a little life heat to the dish, but it can be omitted or replaced with a pinch of red chili flakes or dried peperoncino.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Pasta with canned-clam sauce is best enjoyed immensely, immediately.