If a restaurant is offering any combination of pasta, shellfish, and a creamy, garlicky sauce, you better believe I will be ordering it. It’s my favorite type of entree, both dining out and at home.
When I started cooking for myself in college, one of the first recipes I tried was a simplified variation on linguine and clams from Bon Appetit. It’s stayed with me ever since. I’ll warn you up front that I’m talking about canned clams, here. But it doesn’t matter; the concept is so easy and good. For 15 years, I’ve been making it on the regular for any guest of mine who eats both gluten and seafood. At this point, you’d have to call it my specialty.
Still, the canned clams always nagged at me. I occasionally tried variations with fresh clams, but the results were disappointing. That is, until a couple of months ago, when I found Bon Appetit‘s “Best” Linguine and Clams recipe from late 2016 (shade on previous editors much?). This one calls for fresh littlenecks, white wine, and even anchovies. Vittoria!
I thought that fresh seafood would mostly have the effect of taking my linguine-and-clams game to the next level, but that’s not quite right. These two preparations are not substitutes. One is fast, creamy, and blessed by fresh basil. (I should add that it’s also preferred by my family members, who have been eating “my” version for as long as they’ve known me.) The other is more complex – in both labor and taste – and briny. They’re apples and oranges. Try each in their own time.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add one pound of your favorite brand of dry linguine and cook until one minute shy of al dente, according to the package instructions. (The pasta will soak up some clam sauce after they’re combined.)
Meanwhile, cut half a red or sweet onion into a small dice. Peel and mince four to eight fresh garlic cloves, or more; there’s no such thing as too much garlic. Heat about two tablespoons of olive oil in a medium pot over medium heat. Add the diced onion and stir occasionally, cooking for five minutes or so. The onion should turn translucent and soft but shouldn’t caramelize.
While the onion cooks, open three cans of canned clams partway (I use one chopped and two minced). Reserve the juice.
When the onion hints at browning, add the garlic and saute briefly. Its color will start to deepen after one or two minutes. At that point, strain all the clam juice into the pot, stirring after each addition. (Reserve the clams.) Increase the heat to medium high. Slowly drizzle in one half cup of heavy cream. Season the sauce with about two teaspoons of dried Italian seasoning and half a teaspoon of crushed red pepper, or to taste. Stirring intermittently, cook the sauce at an active simmer for eight to ten minutes, or until it’s noticeably thicker and reduced by at least a third.
While the clam sauce reduces, wash and dry 10 to 16 fresh basil leaves, depending on size. NOTE: I use whole leaves for two reasons. I think it looks prettier, especially because cut basil will turn brown. Also, *certain people* in my family don’t like eating herbs; the whole-leaf method lets them avoid it.
Choose a pot or bowl large enough to accommodate all the pasta and to let you toss it freely. If the sauce is still cooking down when the pasta is ready, combine the drained pasta with the reserved clams in the large pot or bowl and mix them together thoroughly to help prevent the pasta from sticking to itself. When the sauce has thickened, pour it over the pasta and toss to distribute evenly. Add about three quarters of your basil leaves and stir again to distribute evenly. Try to be gentle so that the leaves don’t bruise too much.
Now, understand that your evenly distributed sauce will not stay evenly distributed. While both the sauce and pasta are still hot, the sauce will collect at the bottom until it soaks in, letting the top noodles dry out. So plan to spend about five minutes tossing all the pasta intermittently to redistribute.
When the sauce no longer pools at the bottom, the meal is ready! Dish it out in low bowls with the clams evenly apportioned, and garnish with the remaining basil. Serve with shredded parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano and any color of fresh-ground pepper to taste.
Measure out a third of a cup of dry white wine and set it aside. The rest of the bottle is for you.
Under cold water, thoroughly scrub two to three pounds of littleneck clams to remove sand and grit from the shells.
Peel 12 cloves of garlic and slice nine of them as thinly as you can. Finely chop about half a cup of Italian parsley. (If you weren’t ready for that glass of wine before, you probably are now.)
Bring 2 tablespoons of salt and 10 cups of water to boil in a large pot. Cook 12 to 16 ounces of dried linguine or spaghetti for just five minutes. (Bon Appetit suggests an “artisanal dried pasta” with a rougher surface to “catch the slippery sauce” better.) Reserve two cups of the cooking water, then drain the pasta to finish cooking in the clam sauce when ready.
Make breadcrumbs: In a food processor, pulse the three unsliced garlic cloves and four ounces of country-style bread, cut or torn into smaller pieces, until fine crumbs form. (The recipe says to remove the bread crust, but I like the texture it adds to the crumbs.) In a large pan or pot with a lid, heat two tablespoons of olive oil at medium heat. Add the breadcrumbs and cook for about five minutes or until they’re crisp, stirring often to prevent burning. Transfer the crumbs to a medium bowl and mix in the zest of one lemon and salt to taste.
Cook the clams: Wipe any stray bread crumbs out of the pan and add a quarter cup of olive oil. Still over medium heat, cook the sliced garlic, stirring often, for about three minutes or until it starts to turn golden. Add up to one teaspoon of anchovy paste and half a teaspoon of red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring, until the anchovy paste dissolves, about a minute. Then stir in the wine you initially measured out and simmer until only a couple of tablespoons of liquid are left in the pan. Add the clams you scrubbed and gently toss to combine with the garlic and cooking liquid. Cover the pan and cook until the clams are open, about five minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a large bowl. Tent them with foil to keep them warm and moist. (If some clams open and others don’t, you can remove the open clams and try cooking the closed ones, covered, for a few minutes longer. But throw them away if they don’t open.)
After you remove the cooked clams, add the pasta to the pan with the clam liquid with about a cup of the pasta cooking water. Bring it to a boil and cook for about five minutes, until the pasta is al dente and the sauce clings to it. If the liquid gets thin before the pasta is ready, add more reserved pasta water a little at a time.
When the pasta is cooked and coated well with sauce, turn off the heat and add the parsley you chopped and two tablespoons of unsalted butter. Stir in about a third of the breadcrumbs.
Divide the pasta and clams into individual bowls and top each with a few more sprinkled breadcrumbs. Serve with red pepper flakes and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.