What is it about venus clams and pasta, i.e. spaghetti alle vongole? What?
Does it matter?
Let’s not fret over the whys and wherefores … let us just make some spaghetti alle vongole and justification be damned!
Ingredients: olive oil and garlic, parsley, chilli flakes, spaghetti and … naturally … venus clams. Reckon on at least 200g per person.
The idea is to steam the clams open and set aside any ‘juice’ that comes forth from this opening. It is very trendy these days to speak of ‘liquor’ and ‘humour’ when referring to this liquid … sounds very medieval to me, I’ll just stick to ‘liquid’ or ‘juice’, okay?
This liquid is what MAKES spaghetti alle vongole, it is liquid gold, handle with care! The rest of the sauce is made up of sautéing some garlic in olive oil. That’s it, simple!
Here are 1.5 kg of venus clams and some coarse salt and water. The idea is to bathe the clams or ‘vongole’ for about one hour so that they will release any sand they can be harbouring within. The aim, therefore, is to re-create the saltiness of seawater.
After one hour, it’s time for some elbow work. Strain the vongole and wash them off in running water. Then put them in a basin full of water and use your hands to swish them about very energetically … and I mean energetically. This will release any sand and you will definitely see it.
Throw out the sandy water. Re-fill the basin and vigorously swish the vongole about all over again. Repeat this operation over and over again, until the water is crystal clear. There is nothing worse than tucking into a plate of gorgeous looking spaghetti alla vongole and then discovering a nasty crunch of sand in one’s mouth — yuk.
Now that we have got rid any sand in the vongole, we can proceed with cooking them. The first thing to realise is that vongole should not be over-cooked, otherwise they will end up with a rubbery consistency.
The idea is to steam them open and then cool them down as soon as possible so that they do not carry on cooking.
PREPARING THE REST OF THE SAUCE
(a) There is nothing worse than burnt garlic, it will ruin any dish.
(b) Now, the rule of thumb when sautéing any food is to cover the entire diameter of the saucepan.
Because we are dealing with a very LARGE saucepan, however, we would have to use far too much olive oil in order to cover the whole bottom of the saucepan. So, the only way to get around it is to cook the garlic in a small milk-pan. Genius …
While the garlic is merrily cooking away, take hold of each vongola and snap off half of its shell and throw the empty one away. Put the vongola on the half-shell back into the large saucepan (on the right). Put some water on to boil at this point for the spaghetti …
Here they all are … lovely. The water should be boiling by now, add the salt, and add the spaghetti … What you see on the left of this photo is the precious liquid that came out of the vongole when they were steamed …
Strain the olive oil which sautéed the garlic onto the vongole and mix it all together. When the pasta is almost cooked, but not quite, turn the heat on of the large saucepan and strain the pasta directly into the clam sauce. The idea is to allow the spaghetti to soak up all the lovely clam sauce as it ends its cooking time.
Please note that I like my spaghetti alle vongole a little spicy but not everyone does. Thus I add the chilli flakes on my own plate. If this were not a problem, the best time to add the chilli flakes would be when sautéing the garlic.
Buon appetito …
Shortly after writing this post, a friend suggested I add some of the cooking water to the mix. I did as she advised and the result is even better, because it adds a sort of ‘creminess’ to the pasta sauce. After the pasta has been strained and added to the pan containing the garlic-scented olive oil, add 1 ladleful of the cooking water and stir vigorously (or toss the pan if prefer) before adding the vongole. It may need even more than 1 ladleful to achieve the creamy result but this is something that you will have to gauge for yourselves, while you are finishing off the pasta.