First of all, before I tell you how to make this dish that will transport you to the azured-sea , hot-gorgeous-men-and-women-laden, rocky-shored, sun-kissed isle of Ponza off the coast of Rome, even if you’ve never been there, I would like to issue a complaint. It’s a kvetch necessary for the spiel.
I hadn’t made pasta con le vongole (pasta with clams) in over 10 years and before attempting it again I looked at tons of recipes to prepare my brain for the undertaking. Though I had always created a masterpiece with the dish, or so my less mature self thought, I had never utilized the precious liquid that is emitted from the clams. This liquid is considered the golden touch in pasta con le vongole, because it adds so much flavor; I just never knew what to do with it. I had omitted a crucial step and decided to school myself in the process.
I started this recipe research, of course, with the Italians since they are the rightful owners of this dish. Some add wine, some don’t. Fine. Some add tomato some don’t. Fine. But in almost every case (and I know because I unsuccessfully tried a variation of the recipes and watched many a Youtube video of Italian chefs making this primo piatto) no one properly addressed what to do with all the liquid that the mollusks produce. There was so much of it and I found myself with a watery plate of pasta which violently goes against every Italian culinary pasta principle in existence.
And I’m sorry, I just don’t make watery pasta. I just don’t.
Why does no one talk about the steps in between cooking the clams which creates an abundance of liquid and then having a precisely al dente pasta with a sauce that perfectly coats each noodle with no run-off on the side of your plate? What are these chefs doing that they are not telling us?
Most recipes call for covering the pan when cooking the clams which allows for no evaporation of liquids. In many cases the addition of wine into the mix only adds even more to the watery problem. Furthermore, most encourage you to save water from the pasta pot in order to add even more liquid to the sauce once the pasta is done. Where the hell does all that water go?
So I found myself asking whether it is ok to reduce a sauce with mollusks in it or will they overcook and turn rubbery? I was not about to remove the clams, reduce the sauce and add them back in. Too many dirty dishes and I don’t want those little guys sitting around in the cold air. Next question: is it possible that in Italy, where the clams are smaller and of a different variety, less water is produced in the cooking process? Maybe. So I decided to look into American chefs’ recipes who are using American clams. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I don’t trusts Americans in the kitchen. But this was a matter of pasta and the Italians weren’t putting out. As expected, the American front was a large disappointment. I even found one chef from the food network who put pancetta in with the seafood…as if this meal wasn’t non-kosher enough!
Mario (Battali) held the key, though he is also responsible for sending me on this seemingly treasure-less hunt in the first place. Mario, I love you, you know that, even if I don’t occupy the space of even one neuron in that great red-haired brain of yours. You cook a thousand times better than me and Mozza is perhaps my favorite restaurant ever, which is why I went straight to you when I needed guidance on this matter. But your recipe for Linguine with Clams in your Molto Gusto book led me to my first extra watery clam pasta disaster. Closed lid, wine, extra water from the pasta. Mario, there is a secret step in that recipe that you are not telling us!
I did ultimately find another recipe of Mario’s online that finally set this pasta right. He left the mollusks uncovered and undercooked the pasta. Aha!!!
Here’s my break down:
1. Clams need to be cooked over a lively flame UNCOVERED. Aside from allowing the juices to condense, this will also slow down the time it takes for them to open and help you synchronize the timing with the cooking of the pasta.
2. Pasta needs to be undercooked a good minute and half. If you don’t know what a minute-and a-half-undercooked pasta tastes like, this recipe is not for you. Yet. Practice with more forgiving recipes first. If you are in LA, come to my Pasta Level 1 Class to get initiated into the al dente school. In the Pasta Class Level 2, we make this dish.
3. I like Linguine con le Vongole with a little tomato. Not a rich tomato sauce, but just a couple tomatoes to thicken the juices and flavor.