I've been in love with spaghetti vongole ever since the first time I had it in some Italian restaurant. There are, as I'm sure you are aware, certain magical combinations between foods, tastes and flavours that interact on so visceral a level that any other pairing seems tragically misguided. Clams and white wine are one such combination, or what Jamie Oliver, in his inimitable, if somewhat proletarian way, calls "best friends".
A decent helping of spaghetti vongole isn't all that hard to make, but it's amazing how often it gets mucked up in restaurants. I'm not claiming my recipe will make an utterly earth-shattering vongole, but it is palatable, which is more than I can say for some restaurant versions.
The most important ingredient, naturally, is the clams. Get them as fresh as possible, either from the wet market or specialised seafood places. Please, please do not settle for canned clams. The problem with fresh clams though, is that they can be a bitch to clean. Scrub them vigorously with a toothbrush to rid them of all grit and dirt, and soak them in salt water to make them eject the sand they contain. You may have to soak them twice; pouring away the first container of sandy water.
Ingredients (Serves 4)
400g dried pasta (spaghetti or linguine)
1kg small clams, scrubbed and soaked twice
4 Tbsp olive oil
2 - 3 Tbsp minced garlic
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 red chilli, seeded and minced
1 bunch minced parsley
Not pictured are the chicken stock and parsley. It's not absolutely essential to use the best quality olive oil and white wine , but feel free to go for broke, as well as breaking out the fresh pasta.
Timing's very important in this recipe, since you're cooking the pasta and clams separately. The clams take about 10 - 15 minutes, depending on the strength of your stove, while my dried pasta usually takes about 13 - 15 minutes, so I put the pasta to boil first before starting on the clams. If you're using fresh pasta, adjust accordingly.
In a bit pot of boiling, salted water, dump in your pasta to cook according to the manufacturer's instructions. [For some reason we like to use a saucepan to cook pasta; don't ask me why. If cooking a lot of pasta, use a pot. The bigger the better.]
In a separate pot, heat up the olive oil over a strongish flame.
Saute your garlic in the oil till they're a nice, light golden colour, and you can positively breathe the slightly bitter aroma wafting out of the pot. Make sure not to burn them, naturally.
Dump in your clams to cook for a minute or so over medium-high heat, just enough for them to take on a vermilion hue that makes them look oh so attractive.
Pour in your white wine, which should cause the pot to sizzle satisfyingly and release a cloud of wine-scented steam. Toss in the chilli and parsley for the colour and flavour quotient. Add the chicken stock to add body to your clam and white wine broth, slap on the lid, and turn up the heat.
A nifty trick from Nigella: to cook your clams evenly without losing any of that precious white wine aroma, leave the lid on but shake the pot about every once in a while, vigorously, in a swirling action, to distribute the clams and broth.
After about a minute or two, you should be able to hear the clams clinking together, which means they're opening up. This is your cue to turn off the heat. If you've timed everything perfectly, your pasta should be just a crunch short of al dente, in order for you to toss it into your clam pot for it to finish cooking and simultaneously absorb some lovely clam and white wine juices.
If, however, you haven't timed it right and your pasta is still cooking, never fear. Slap the lid back onto your clam pot, and keep it off the heat. Once your pasta is done, just pour the clams and juice onto it and serve immediately. Your clams will be only slightly overcooked and not exactly piping hot, but no one will know the difference.
Spaghetti alle Vongole should preferably be served in a dish, allowing you to spoon more clam juice over the pasta. Don't forget to provide a separate bowl for the empty shells. Oh yes, always discard any clams that remain stubbornly unopened after cooking.