For a long time I had an aversion towards linguine and clams. There was something about that fatal combination of shellfish and pasta that seemed borderline repulsive.
What was probably the oddest thing about that feeling was that I love shellfish, including clams, and generally liked pasta. I can’t say loved, because unlike my old Italian roommate, I never craved it. There would be days I would come home and find her eating a giant bowl of plain pasta. “I just needed some. It’s been too long since we had pasta,” she say, “I don’t care if we don’t have any sauce.”
If anything, I would crave potatoes. But that’s one of those eternal debates I have with people. If you were going to choose one carb, whether it was potatoes, pasta, rice, or bread, which would it be? I always choose potatoes – probably the Irish in me coming through. (Although this is a stereoptype, I found when I lived in Britain, it was the only place I’d ever been to dinner parties, or just regular dinners, where there would be two types of potatoes served–usually mashed and then another style. This was the usual too.)
Back to the linguine and clams. Perhaps I hated it because there was something about the canned clams my family always used that seemed wrong. They are fine in a soup, but to make them the focal point of a dish was blasphemy, something told me. I felt horribly disappointed when my great aunt, who is very Italian with an even more Italian husband, would proclaim she would make linguine and clams for dinner and it would be the best. Even the pasta matter. “De Cecco? I call it De Crap!” she’d yell.
So it wasn’t until last year I finally felt brave enough to try to make linguine and clams. And I think it was only because of my experiences at the Scottish fishmonger and later, my Berkeley housemate’s cooking of clams in a Portuguese style she learned from her family that I felt brave enough to try to make them myself. How different could they be from mussels? (Then again it was the same Berkeley friend of Portuguese descent that taught me to make mussels when she visited me in Scotland.)
Luckily, the fishmonger I went to on this adventure was my new found beloved The Fish Market in Dearborn, Michigan. With a Sicilian map on the wall, I knew I was in the right place. Even better, the young guy at the counter first asked me what I was making when I said I wanted clams. “Then you want the pasta clams,” he said, pulling out clams about the size of my big toenail. They were tiny creatures and perfectly light for a pasta. None of the intense chewiness of the larger ones, which he told me were better for cutting up for a chowder. I took those clams home and threw them together with some wine, tomatoes, and onions, throwing them over pasta.
But, this time around, almost a year later from making my first successful linguine and clams, I decided I needed to improve on my previous adventure and follow Bill Buford’s directions in his book, Heat. As a former New Yorker editor, he learned his mastery of cooking by apprenticing himself to everyone from Mario Batali to an Italian butcher and in the process his ideas about linguine and clams also evolved. I was impressed to learn that he also felt an adversity towards them and how much his viewpoints changed.
Linguine and clams is supposed to be simple — something you throw together with what you got off the boat and what’s in your pantry. I heated up some olive oil, almost to the smoking point, threw in a bunch of minced garlic and red onion, added some chili flakes and let the simmer, tossing out the olive oil when done. Next I threw in the clams (with the heat at full force underneath) and threw in a bunch of Sicilian wine I found at Whole Foods and let it cook until the clams were open. Once ready, I threw in the cooked linguine (making sure to use tongs to take it out of the pot as Buford suggest in order to incorporate some pasta water – the trick to good Italian pasta sauces), added some chopped parsley, a dab of butter and some olive oil and Voila! Dinner.
Bu as for my new fishmonger, the one here in Los Angeles, I have the feeling we are going to have a good relationship. But then again, I always find the fishmonger the most interesting of grocery people. More on that soon.