If you have known me for any length of time, I have likely served you a version of this Venetian classic. In New Zealand, we made it with tua tua and pipis gathered at One Tree Point, or we used the delicious South Island littleneck clams from the tanks at the Auckland Fish Market. At home, you could even buy them at the nearby New World supermarket. In London, I make a special trip to the fishmongers to purchase palourde clams, the same variety you’ll find dredged out of the lagoon in Venice, and it is always worth it.
Two good handfuls of vongole (clams in English. See note below on preparing the clams)
1 small clove of garlic, finely sliced (but not in a garlic crusher as the flavour will be too intense)
A good splash of white wine
A pinch of chilli flakes
Spaghetti (for quantity, see note below on measuring the spaghetti)
Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of water, according to packet instructions. Once the water has come to the boil, add a generous amount of salt, approximately one teaspoon. Time the pasta so it is has one minute of cooking time remaining once the clams are done. It needs to have a good bite to it when it’s finished, it should not be soft. Taste it if necessary. You will then add the pasta directly into the clams, where it will finish cooking and soak up all the delicious flavours.
Cooking the ‘vongole’
Find a pan that has a lid and pop it on the stove. Heat a good amount (approx 1 Tbsp) of extra virgin olive oil over medium heat, then add the chopped garlic, vigilantly keeping watch so you don’t burn the garlic. It won’t take long to cook, only a minute or so. You will find that some Italians will tell you to crush a whole clove of garlic and slightly brown this in olive oil to extract its flavour, before you remove it prior to adding the other ingredients. I have tried this, and whilst it is also very good, I find that I prefer an even distribution of small pieces of garlic (cooked until soft in the olive oil) in the finished dish because it gives a better flavour. But that is just my opinion!
Once the garlic is soft, add a pinch of chilli flakes and turn the heat up. Next add the white wine. You need to hear the wine sizzle, so make sure the pan is hot enough, but don’t burn the garlic in the process. Now you can tip in the clams. Ensure they are cleaned before you do this, especially if you have spent time purging them, the last thing you want is to get any grit in the sauce. Cover with a lid. Depending on the size, they won’t take long to start opening. The enemy of clams is over-cooking – if you are concerned that the pasta has not finished cooking by the time the clams are open, take the clams out one by one with tongs and set them aside. You can add them back into the sauce when you are ready.
Once all the clams are open in the pan, they should be swimming in an amalgamated pool of clam juice, oil and reduced white wine. It will smell very good. Add some of the chopped parsley, then add the cooked pasta. I lift the pasta from the cooking water using tongs, which is my technique for retaining a little of the pasta water on the spaghetti. Cook everything in the pan together for one extra minute and let the pasta soak up the delicious flavours, ensuring there is a little liquid left at the end as well. This pasta is not intended to be served bone dry. Finish with a pour of your very best olive oil, sprinkle with a little extra parsley and you are done.
An alternative to clams
If you can’t find clams, make this dish with mussels. And add a couple of chopped anchovies to melt into the oil at the same time as the garlic, it is pure heaven!
Preparing the clams
Only use clams that are shut, or close when given a good tap. Otherwise, throw them out. Another watch out is sand in the clams. Most clams that you buy will already be purged to remove the sand, so you can use them straight away. If in doubt, it is worth checking that this process has taken place as I have had a couple of nasty surprises, always when you least expect it. For example, when you buy beautiful fresh clams in streetside markets in Europe, often they are so fresh that the clams have not yet had the time to spit out the sand. You then have to throw away your hard work, or crunch sadly through your meal. And for sure, if you have collected the clams yourself from the beach you’ll need to purge them.
To purge clams at home, keep them in a bucket of sea water (or salted water) overnight so they have a chance to spit out the sand. Overnight is normally long enough as you will be unlikely to eat them before lunch the next day, at the earliest. Test a couple by steaming them open in a small amount of water. If required, let them sit a little longer. Make sure you don’t leave the clams so long that they die – if they are open at the end of this process and do not shut when you tap them, throw them away.
Measuring the Spaghetti
The amount of pasta you use is entirely a matter of personal preference. I measure pasta using a technique I read in an (surprisingly) informative cookbook by The Real Housewives of New Jersey’s, Teresa Giudice, which I discovered on a free Kindle download. Teresa pulls the spaghetti out of the packet, joins her thumb and forefinger together to make a circle and reduces or enlarges the hole depending on how many people she is cooking for. Comparing the size of the hole to a coin (this being the Real Housewives), you then determine how much will pasta fit into the hole, and this how much you use. From memory, her coins were slightly more generous than mine per serving, but for two people I suggest using enough spaghetti to fit a circle the size of about a two pound coin (two dollar, two euro wherever you come from, they are more or less the same size). When I am cooking for just me, I will make a hole that fits a 20p coin which is sensible portion size for one person.
Highlights of Venice
For some tips when visiting Venice, see the Further Reading section in the Venetian Anchovy and Onion Pasta recipe.