Littleneck clams, cherrystone, clams, razor clams, cockles, steamers, chowder clams – I love clams. I love them raw on the half shell with a squeeze of lemon, baked oreganata, grilled on the plancha, steamed, chowdered or any of a million ways. One of my very favorite ways of eating clams though, is over pasta – either linguini or spaghetti in a white sauce. While it can be time consuming to prepare, making a spaghetti with white clam sauce could not be simpler. The funny thing, though, is that it is difficult to find a good one in restaurants. I often use that dish as a measuring stick for an Italian restaurant that serves it. Few pass.
I think too many people try to get too fancy with this dish. I think it works best when it is kept simple. While adding wine, pepper flakes, cream or any number of other ingredients isn't necessarily bad, but I find that these extra ingredients do little to enhance the dish. Good basic, fresh ingredients and careful preparation are key just like with any classic Italian dish.
The clams are obviously important. In Italy they tend to use the little vongole veraci, but ironically, I have never had as good a clam sauce in Italy as I have had in the U.S. While I don't think the specific variety is critical, I prefer littlenecks because they don't need to be minced up and they still release a lot of juice. The most important element in making a great clam sauce is using enough clams and capturing all of the juice when opening the clams. For one pound of pasta one needs a minimum of two dozen littlencks, though I generally prefer to double that.
While I learned how to make the dish from my mother, I picked up a useful technique for shucking them from my good friend, Joseph Bavuso, who is probably the best non-professional cook that I know. Sometimes it seems that there are as many methods of opening clams as there are clams. My father, who preferred cherrystone clams, would shuck them in their natural state, being careful to save the juices. My mother would then meticulously clean the clams to make sure that there was no grit and she would mince them with a scissor. Fortunately, with today's successful clam aquaculture techniques, they generally come pre-purged and clean – especially the smaller littlenecks- so the meticulous cleaning is rarely necessary.
Shucking the raw clams like my father did can be difficult, especially if one doesn't do that job with any frequency. It can also be somewhat dangerous as the knife can slip and cause some damage. In addition, shell chops can find their way into the final dish, making for a less than pleasant dining experience. Some people find it easier and better to put the clams in the freezer for a short period to make them easier to shuck. This works well, but can take additional time and may make it more difficult if the clams are left in too long.
The technique I learned from Joe was to layer the clams in a pan with just a little water at the bottom and then watch them closely under heat. remove the clams as soon as they begin to open and set them aside. Discard any clams that haven't opened after a reasonable period of time. The clams, cooked ever so slightly, are now very easy to open with a clam knife. I open them over a bowl and collect the meat and the juices together. Add any juices that may have collected from the clams after they were removed from the pan.
With the clams now opened and the meat and juices reserved, the remainder of the process couldn't be simpler. With the pasta cooking (I like McGee's low water, low energy technique), fry garlic (I like about 5 or 6 cloves depending on their size – minced) and parsley (about 1 cup of minced fresh flat-leaf parsley) then add the clams with juice and let simmer. Do not add additional salt unless you taste it first as the clams and the pasta water should provide plenty. Take the pasta out of the cooking water while still somewhat al dente and finish cooking in the sauce over medium heat, adding additional good quality olive oil to the pasta. Be sure to stir the pasta continuously while over heat in the pot to keep it from sticking to the pan and to distribute the sauce. Eat hot! On the off chance that you have left-overs, it is excellent either cold or re-heated.