Jul 14, 2023
To fully appreciate the potential of canned clams, pair them with briny, bright red sauce
The image I conjure of pasta with clams has an aspirational sort of purity to
The image I conjure of pasta with clams has an aspirational sort of purity to it. A tangle of bronze-extruded pasta and just-opened clams in their shells are slicked with a glossy sauce of wine, olive oil, garlic and the clams' briny liquor. Green parsley and red chile flake lend occasional shocks of color to this otherwise muted, luscious composition. Its unspoken caption reads, "Nowhere to hide here!"
I am a believer in paying a little extra for excellent pasta, which provides a flavor backbone of its own, much like I'd rather cook with wine that I like drinking. But because I live in a landlocked place, I can't get the freshest wild-harvested clams, which are the inarguable star of this dish. So, long ago, I resolved to find ways to make this dish delicious with canned clams, which are tasty in their own right and quite affordable.
This is how I also began appreciating the red sauce version of pasta with clams, whose jammy tang benefits from the briny shot of clam juice and saline funk of an oil-packed anchovy or two. Yes, you should absolutely add anchovies to red pasta with clams.
I'd probably condone splurging on fancy canned clams for the white version (Island Creek in Duxbury, Mass., recently released a beautiful collection of tinned fish in partnership with Mariscadora that includes clean, saline clams in brine). But you'd be mistaken to use those beauties in the red version, as the reduced tomatoes will overpower their oceanic nuance.
Besides the tomatoes and anchovy, I've changed little else about this simple recipe, with its aromatic foundation of garlic and shallots cooked in olive oil (and butter, if you please). I don't particularly think this sauce requires wine, but if you have Pinot Grigio open, by all means add a splash or two (just before you add the clam juice in the method below).
A lot of people will fiercely debate whether or not one should sprinkle a little parm or pecorino over shellfish pasta dishes. I, for one, say if you love cheese with fish, add it. I prefer finishing this dish with a shower of fresh breadcrumbs fried with garlic in olive oil then tossed with parsley and lemon zest. It adds a little crunch and is a great way to use up those pesky bread butts. Then again, people could probably find plenty about this recipe to fiercely debate. Meanwhile, I'll be here, slurping red pasta with canned clams and nothing at all to hide.
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed5 fat garlic cloves, smashed and divided2 to 3 slices bread, pulsed for 45 seconds in the food processor Pinch salt, plus more as neededZest of ½ lemon1 pound linguine, spaghetti or fusilli1 tablespoon butter1 to 2 anchovies¼ teaspoons red pepper flakes1 shallot, minced2 6-ounce cans of clams, drained and liquid reserved (Snow's, Bar Harbor — whatever your grocery store has)2 cups strained or chopped tomatoes (I like Pomi)½ cup fresh parsley, minced and dividedFresh squeezed lemon juice, as needed, for seasoning and finishing
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the 2 Tbsp olive oil and one smashed garlic clove. Tip in the breadcrumbs, add a tiny pinch of salt, and cook, tossing frequently, until the breadcrumbs are golden brown. Take care to turn the garlic clove frequently, so it doesn't burn. Remove from the heat and scrape the breadcrumbs into a bowl, reserving the cooked garlic. Add the lemon zest to the breadcrumbs, tossing to combine. Wipe out the skillet with a paper towel.
Chop the reserved, cooked garlic clove and remaining four raw cloves, and set aside. Heat the skillet over medium with another 2 Tbsp olive oil and the butter. Add the anchovy, breaking it up with a wooden spoon as it melts. Add the red pepper flakes, shallot and chopped garlic. Cook for about 3 minutes, until the aromatics start to soften. Add the liquid from the clams, and turn the heat up to medium high. Add the tomatoes, half the parsley and a good pinch of salt. Bring the sauce to a boil, then turn down to medium and simmer for 12 to 15 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and reduced a little. Add the clams, cook for another minute and taste. Adjust the seasoning as needed with salt, red pepper flake and lemon juice.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in generously salted water according to the directions on the box. When the pasta is al dente, add it to the sauce, reserving about ⅓ cup of the starchy cooking water. Toss the pasta until evenly coated in sauce, adding a few tablespoons of pasta water to the mixture to loosen, and a glug of olive oil for sheen. Taste a sauced noodle, and adjust the seasoning again if needed.
To serve, dish up the pasta into bowls, and top each with a good handful of the oil-fried breadcrumbs. Garnish with a generous sprinkling of parsley and another spritz of lemon.
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