I’ve talked about clams before. I like them. A lot. Okay, more than a lot. It’s a problem. Sometimes, they’re all I can think about. When I get it in my mind that I want them, nothing else will suffice. It’s like a nervous tick. I’m sure it has to do with my childhood. I’ve mentioned how clams are always on my family’s table for mini celebrations—so much so that we can hardly celebrate anything without them. They’re more essential than a birthday cake. And I don’t like eating them with anyone other than my family. It’s just not the same without my dad cutting lemon wedges at the kitchen counter, digging the Tobasco bottle from that dark corner of the fridge before he sits down. A very special meal will include the triple header: raw clams for an appetizer, then pasta with clams, followed by baked clams.
My husband Joe has experienced the Gagliano clam extravaganza at my parents’ house, but I decided recently that I have to master this fine art now, before we have a family of our own to continue the madness with. I was also feeling a little homesick, so I broke my own rule and made spaghetti with clams without my parents. It was amazing, but I really did miss the big family table, my mom scrunching her nose at the raw clams, and the inevitable stories that emerge over dinner. It often goes back to Brooklyn, sharing memories of clam nights with the neighbors who lived above and below us. Mr. Joe and his wife Marie lived upstairs. Mr. Joe loved clams–almost as much as me. He would call us up for clam dinners at least once a month. And what could be better? Tony and Helen, who lived downstairs, and also shared the love.
They were all elderly and treated my parents like their own kids. My brothers and I were their honorary grandkids, even though our grandparents lived right across the street. We didn’t mind. We had so much in common—our love for clams most of all. We’d all gather in our cramped kitchens, noses running from too much Tobasco, pasta water boiling over, shouting at one another, men arguing over shucking methods, like one big dysfunctional neighborly family.
Tony, Helen, Mr. Joe, Marie, this one’s for you, wherever you are.
Spaghetti with Clams
1 dozen fresh cherrystone clams
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
½ medium white onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, diced
Approximately 10 sprigs of fresh parsley, chopped
1 pound spaghetti
Romano cheese, grated
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Shuck the clams, taking special care to reserve the juice. This is the trickiest part. I use a neurotic two-bowl method created by my mom. Keep one large bowl, where all the juice will eventually end up. But open each clam over a smaller, separate bowl. Catch the juice in the small bowl and give it a good sniff. If it doesn’t smell funky, pour it into the large bowl. That way, if you happen upon a bad clam you won’t ruin the entire batch.
Set the actual clams in a separate dish for later. If you need a quick lesson in clam-shucking, I refer you once again to our good friends in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
Once you have a good bowl of juice, filter out the sand. The fine pores in a plain cotton handkerchief are perfect for this. Line a new bowl with a (clean!) handkerchief large enough to cover the entire bowl, with room to fold over the rim. With the handkerchief securely in place, pour the clam juice into the bowl, making sure the cloth doesn’t fall in.
Gather the handkerchief’s four corners and lift, creating a sack. The juice will drip slowly through the fabric, leaving the sand behind. Set aside.
You can adjust your clammy levels depending on the severity of your clam obsession. I, for one, would name my firtborn Littleneck if it were socially acceptable. But seeing as how it’s not, I choose, instead, to make a super clammy pasta. If you’re like me, cut the dozen clams you’d set aside into bite-size pieces. If you want a slightly less clammy experience, use half the clams (or however many you want, really). You can bake the rest, or call me and I’ll come pick them up.
In a large saucepan, sauté the onions and garlic in the olive oil. Add ¾ of the parsley and sauté until it begins to soften, then add the clam juice. Cover the pot and let it simmer on low heat for about 15 minutes. In the meantime, get your pasta water boiling and make the spaghetti. I’ll spare you the step-by-step on how to boil pasta, but if you need help, visit this lovely blog.
Set the cooked spaghetti aside and tend to your sauce again. Its base is essentially ocean water, so it’s going to be really salty. Taste it and add water as needed. Your pasta water is perfect for this if you haven’t already dumped it. Once you get the liquid to your liking, add the chopped clams. They only need about a minute to cook, so add them at this very last stage. Overcooked clams will get rubbery.
Pour the clam sauce over the cooked pasta, mix, and serve. Top each serving with a dash of the remaining parsley, Romano cheese, and pepper. Call and invite me over for dinner.