The more I cook the more I realize I have never gone wrong with Marcella Hazan‘s cookbooks, especially my well worn and falling apart copy of Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. On Saturday night I found myself with a lot of quahogs and about four dozen beautiful littlenecks I dug with my son on the falling tide. Littlenecks generally get opened and eaten raw on the half-shell, but I wanted a white clam sauce and some pasta so I turned to Marcella’s bible of Italian and made her version of the classic spaghettini con vongole.
The clams came from a very special spot that I won’t disclose because it’s my go-to spot for littlenecks. Quahogs are graded by size. and the most delicate and tasty are the small ones, about the size of a silver dollar, called littlenecks. A step bigger, the right size for clams casino, are cherrystones, and above them come a sort of neither here nor there middle ground that really doesn’t have a name — save perhaps “clams” — and at the high end, for stuffed quahogs or making chowder are the eponymous “chowder” clams about as big as a big man’s fist.
The smallest clams have to be run through a steel gauge to make sure they are legal. The basket on my Ribb rake is also allegedly spaced correctly to let juveniles drop through, but I use the gauge just to be sure. Any babies get tossed into deeper water where the gulls can’t forage them and they can grow up to become chowders.
The spot is good because it is a small river — a stream really — that has a lot of water velocity with the rising and falling tide and that means the clams are fresher than the ones in stagnant water. They live in sand, not black mud, and are easy to clean and usually deliver a chewing experience without sand or grit. I also have a respect for funky clams, the kinds that give you 36 hours on the toilet or a permanent case of hepatitis. Let’s just say I don’t eat August littlenecks.
We took all we needed in 10 minutes, coming up a few times with rakes filled with six, seven littlenecks. These are not littlenecks in the picture below, but cherrystones.
We wore waders because it is April after all and waders made a day on the water a lot more enjoyable — no filling of boots, no shivering in the windchill of the speeding motorboat, the air temperature on the water in the early spring feels at least ten degrees colder than it does on land, in the yard, out of the wind. We took our littlenecks, measured them, then set off for another spot to look for bigger clams for an Easter Clams Casino and some chowder base to freeze up for the summer when there is company.
The bigger clams are a little harder to harvest, but in 15 minutes we had our limit, coming up with multiple clams on every pull of the rakes.
We packed it in, climbed back onto the boat and went for a brisk spin around Grand Island to see if Dow Clark the mechanic had success in clearing the clogged carburetor jets on the old Honda. We flew through West Bay, under the drawbridge, and past the boatyard, still in hibernation under a shroud of shrink wrap.
So the recipe? Steam the clams on high heat until the shells pop, then pluck them out and shuck them into a bowl, saving the clam juice. Saute in 6 tbsp. of olive oil about six big garlic cloves sliced very thin and a big shallot. Throw in two diced plum tomatoes, a cup of dry white wine, two tbsps of red pepper flakes, three tbsps. of chopped parsley and reduce it down. Turn that off, boil a big pot of salted water, cook a box of thin spaghetti until it is almost done — drain, throw in the saute pan with the tomatoes, garlic, oil, etc., toss over high heat until all the liquid is evaporated. Turn off the heat. Throw in the clams and their juice, a dozen torn up basil leaves and eat. One of the better uses of four dozen littlenecks I’ve ever tried. Tomorrow – clams Casino and chowder before the Easter feast.