Here are two extremely exciting news items for you on this appallingly gorgeous fall day:
1. Tomato season is STILL going. Amazing.
2. Did you know that “clam season” = all seasons??
If you didn’t know these two exquisite facts, we’re so happy to share, and if you don’t yet realize why these two facts are, in fact, lovely, we’ll enlighten you. Either way, follow us please.
Obviously, we’re big fans of tomatoes (we even own the various tomato paraphernalia and one tomato-printed dress between us to prove it), and we’re big fans of using them in pasta. (And, well, you know how we feel about pasta.) A simple bowl of pasta with good tomatoes, whether fresh, roasted, or in a sauce, is always the easiest way to satisfy our hearts and our stomachs in one go. But sometimes, these ingredients aren’t the end to a recipe, they’re our jumping-off point. A bowl of pasta with tomatoes is kind of like our go-to blank page… What do we feel like adding today? Maybe it’s just fresh chili peppers, sliced paper thin, or briny, cracked olives, or a confetti of garden herbs. Maybe it’s garlicky, roasted eggplant or fresh, creamy ricotta. Or maybe, it’s a huge pile of littleneck clams.
We love tomatoes any way and every way—tomato sandwiches are a Lee & Lou staple, right through the very last plump pickings, best eaten standing up, at the kitchen counter. But one of our favorite ways to eat tomatoes is actually with clams. There are few things better than throwing tomatoes by the handful into a big pot of clams, adding bunches of garlic, basil, and marjoram—which is amazing and woefully underused (and not at all the same as oregano)—and a big glug of white wine, a splash of olive oil, and roasting it all to gloriously juicy, hot perfection. The flavors of garlic and herbs steep into the wine and oil, the tomatoes pop and their juices run together with the broth from the clams, and everything steams and roasts together like they were made for this. As the clams ease open, they’re infused with these flavors, but also help create the most beautiful of sauces around them. You know it’s all done when everything is literally bursting with flavor and your kitchen smells like eating in the garden of an Italian restaurant by the ocean. An unbelievable turn to the idea of the one-pot meal, this could easily be dinner with a chunk of good bread. But for us, nothing is more appealing than tossing in a big pile of really al dente spaghetti, cooking everything together for a minute so the pasta sops up all the good stuff, and plating it all up with some extra marjoram and basil.
For those of you who don’t think of yourselves as clam lovers, you should know that if you ask Lou if she likes clams, the answer is always, always, always, “No.” But if you ask Lou if she wants our pasta with tomatoes and clams, the answer is always, “We have to get to the fish store before it closes!” So, maybe give it a try. Garlic and wine and tomatoes and herbs are involved, after all. How bad can that be?
Some of you may be thinking that cooking clams sounds tricky. If you’ve never done it, this is a completely fair thing to assume… but it’s totally wrong. There are a few things to know about keeping the clams happy and cleaning them before you get to actually cooking them, but the cooking part itself is incredibly easy. Cleaning the clams takes some time, but most of it is inactive prep, and none of it is difficult. And yet, clams seem special and unexpected when they’re served at a meal, which makes this recipe just as perfect for a weeknight as for a big-deal dinner.
Here’s everything you need to know about clams before cooking:
* Take a look at the clams when you’re buying them. You don’t want clams that are chipped, funky smelling (they should smell like the ocean), or that stay open even when you give their shells a tap. If you gently squeeze an open clam shut and it springs back open, it’s a goner. You can always toss an unusable clam or two, but make sure they’re fresh before you buy them.
* Don’t put the clams in a sealed/knotted plastic bag or any kind of air-tight container! They need to breathe. This means they need air. They also must be kept cool. You should ask for ice from the fish counter so you can keep them cold until you get home.
* Once you get the clams home, storing them is simple. Put the clams in an open container, preferably one large enough so they can spread out a bit and breathe, in the refrigerator and cover them with a damp cloth to keep them from drying out.
* You should really use them within a day. Clams will keep a few days out of the ocean, but unless you know when they were caught, best to use them as soon as possible. For how to clean the clams, see below.
And now we’re seriously hungry… and without leftovers. We should have never written this without extra clams on hand… Excuse us, we have to get to the fish store before it closes.
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First things first:
How to Clean Clams
A couple hours before you’re ready to use the clams, you’re going to start cleaning them:
1. Fill a large bowl with a lot of heavily salted ice water (enough to cover your clams). You’re going to need 1/4 cup of coarse salt (kosher salt or sea salt) per quart of water. Sounds like a lot? It is, but don’t skimp. This is what helps the clams purge any sand and whatever other stuff they have inside that you don’t want to eat. You don’t want to cook with gritty clams.
2. Take the clams out of the fridge and give each one a good scrub with a stiff vegetable brush under cold running water. (You may want to have a brush dedicated to shellfish in your kitchen, or else you’ll want to clean this one very well after use.) Place each cleaned clam in your bowl of salty ice water.
3. Once you’ve cleaned all the clams, put the clams and ice water in the fridge. Refrigerate for an hour.
4. Remove the clams from the fridge and lift them out of the ice water carefully. There will be grit at the bottom of the bowl that the clams have spit out and you want to leave it in the bowl, not transfer it with the clams. Put the clams in a colander while you wash out the bowl. Repeat the soaking process as before—submerging the clams in fresh, salted ice water. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour again. Give the colander a wash. (Now is when you want to begin the below recipe or start preparing whatever else you’ll be cooking with the clams. Once you finish step 5, you’ll need to cook the clams ASAP.)
5. Lift the clams out of the water, one or two at a time, and give them a good rise under cold running water. Again, be careful not to pick up any grit once you get down to the bottom and try not to swish around the water so that it mixes into the water. Place each rinsed clam in the colander. Cook right away.
* * * *
Spaghetti with Oven-Roasted Clams, Tomatoes, and Herbs
– A stovetop-safe roasting pan (so not the disposable aluminum ones you get at the grocery store), large enough to fit your clams in a (mostly) single layer. You could also use a large dutch oven.
– About 50 littleneck clams
– 5 pints of a mixture of campari and cherry tomatoes—if you like, you can use all of one or the other
– 4 pounds of roma tomatoes
– Extra virgin olive oil
– 1 1/2 cups of white wine
– 7 cloves of garlic, smashed
– Bunch of fresh marjoram (You can leave most on the stems, if you like—a lot of the leaves will fall off in the sauce, but you’ll need to pick out the stems after cooking. Make sure you take a good handful of leaves off the stems, too, and set those aside to throw into the finished pasta.)
– Bunch of fresh basil, roughly chopped
– 1-2 fresh red chili peppers (or crushed red pepper flakes, if you can’t find the fresh stuff)
– Coarse salt and black pepper
– 2 pounds of spaghetti
* Blanch the tomatoes by scoring the bottoms with an “x” using a sharp knife. Put them in a pot of boiling water for only a few minutes—just until the skins start to split. Remove the tomatoes using a slotted spoon or a strainer, drain, and set aside until cool enough to handle. When you can, peel the tomatoes, being sure to reserve any tomato juice that leaks out as you do, and discard skins. Set peeled tomatoes aside.
* Clean the clams as instructed above through step 4. About 10 minutes before you’re going to take the clams out of the fridge for step 5…
* Pre-heat your oven to 400 °F.
* Set a large pot of well-salted water to boil on your stove for the pasta.
* Get out your roasting pan and set it over two burners on your stove top. Warm it up over medium heat.
* When the pan is hot, add a good glug of olive oil, the garlic, and the chili pepper flakes/slices. Stir for a minute, spreading the garlic and pepper out over the whole bottom of pan. Quickly add the tomatoes, crushing them with your hands as you do, before the garlic starts browning. Stir. There will be a lot of liquid—that’s what you want.
* Add the white wine, a handful each of basil and marjoram, a teaspoon or so of salt, and 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper. Stir and cook until the mixture simmers.
* As this is cooking, take the clams out of the fridge and complete step 5 of cleaning.
* Add the cleaned clams to the roasting pan and stir to coat. They should be in a single layer so that each one is sitting in broth. Turn off the burners.
* Now, you need to cover the roasting pan quickly with aluminum foil. Do this carefully as the pan is hot. Do your best to cover the whole pan so that the steam from the tomato-wine broth will get trapped and cook the clams. Without this steam, the clams won’t cook like they should and they’ll dry out.
* Put the roasting pan in the oven. Roast the clams for about 10 minutes or until they are all open. When you put the clams in the oven, your pasta water should be boiling. Add the spaghetti to the water and stir. Keep an eye on the pasta, stirring occasionally.
* About 7 minutes into cooking, give the clams a quick stir to make sure they’re all coated with broth and replace the foil. Don’t peek before this or too much steam will escape.
* Once you hit the 10 minute mark, take a look to see if all the clams are opened. If only a couple remain closed, take the pan out and discard the closed clams. If there are a bunch of clams that are slightly opened, but not completely, give it another minute or so. Don’t walk away or they may overcook and you’ll wind up with chewy clams.
* When your pasta is al dente, drain it, reserving some of the pasta water in a mug. (You probably won’t need the extra liquid, but it’s good to have on hand, just in case.) If your clams are out of the oven, you can add the spaghetti directly to the roasting pan. If the clams are still cooking for another minute or so, just set the pasta aside for a moment.
* Gently toss the pasta with the clams, broth, and tomatoes for a minute or two until coated. The spaghetti should have the chance to soak up some of the broth. If needed, add a bit of the reserved pasta water.
* Plate the dish by adding the spaghetti to bowls first and putting the clams on top. Finish with extra marjoram and basil.
©2014 Lee and Lou Cook. All rights reserved.