First off, if you love food (and I assume you might) and you haven’t read Heat by Bill Buford – you should. It’s funny, fascinating (at least from the perspective of an outsider) and he’s a fantastic storyteller. The subtitle summarizes the plot better than I’ll be able to: “An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany.”
There you have it. In the sections relating to “Kitchen Slave” and “Line Cook" Buford is in the Babbo kitchen learning under Mario Batali and his chefs. One dish that is described is the preparation for is their Linguine and Clams. It’s interesting to see how such a dish is prepared as it’s ordered from a restaurant kitchen, and amazing to see what an incredible dish it is, with just a few ingredients. It might even be one of those perfect dishes, if only there were always clams hanging out in the fridge. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
This is my adaptation of the preparation described in Heat, but it’s pretty faithful to what he’s described. I believe he calls for pancetta in the book, which I’ve used a bunch of times (and I think it’s the best), but I’ve also done it with bacon and with regular old ham. I didn’t have any of the good stuff around this time, but used a nice cured ham, and it still came out wonderfully. The biggest thing might be timing – I usually end up overcooking the clams – the key is to have the pasta done at the same time the clams are, so it can all come together and land on the table before you’ve got either soft pasta or chewy clams. You kinda want it the other way around, right?
These quantities work for about 3 people eating – Molly usually loves this dish, but last time complained the clams were too chewy (they were) – apparently Kindergarten is making her a more discerning eater.
For this recipe, like any that cooks quickly, preparation is key. Get everything set ahead of time, just sitting in bowls or piles on the counter, and let it rip.
- Get 15 or so smaller clams (littlenecks are what I use), and rinse/scrub them – they should be tightly closed or close up when you start handling them. Set them aside.
- Get ready:
- 1 small or 1/2 large onion, chopped fine
- 1 clove garlic, chopped fine
- 1/2 C of diced/shredded cured/smoked pork product – pancetta, bacon or ham
- 1/3 C or so of dry white wine
- 2 TB butter
- fresh herbs (parsley is great), minced
- a big pot of boiling water
- Heat up a large skillet on medium-high, add the pork and cook till crispy (especially if it’s pancetta or bacon).
- Add the onion and a big pinch of salt and more oil if necessary and cook for a few minutes until soft. Add the garlic.
- Put the pasta into the pot of water – how much? Three handfuls. One for each of us – looks like this (it’s not the same if you aren’t being stared down by a German Shepherd*):
- Cook the garlic for a minute, add the wine, bring to a boil, add the butter, when it melts, add the clams and cover the pan.
The goal, the one I have trouble meeting, is that the pasta should be just about ready when the clams are starting to open. There’s always a couple clams that don’t want to open. I poke and prod for a minute and they usually come around to my point of view.
Add the pasta to the pan with the clams and mix it up. Scoop out about 1/4 C of the pasta water and mix it in, along with the herbs. The whole thing should come together and look like this:
The sauce is just completely full of the flavor of the sea and the buttery, salty, winey deliciousness. I’ll leave it with that.
* This particular German Shepherd couldn’t stare down a squirrel, but that’s besides the point.