Preparing Live Clams (or Mussels), and a Pasta Sauce for Them

Close-Up Of Spaghetti With Clams In Plate
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  • 01 of 09

    Buying Live Shellfish

    Bag of clams
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    OIn Italy one generally buys live clams or mussels by the bag, with the bag's being made of netting or otherwise prepared so as to allow the animals to breathe, and the chances are that the shells will be partially open as they sit on the shelf or bed of crushed ice or what have you. If you shake the bag the bag gently, they should shut tight; animals that fail to react when they're jogged are either dead or dying, and you don't want either. Bend over and sniff the bag too; though shellfish do smell slightly fishy, off or sharp odors are again a bad sign; select something else.

    Where you procure your shellfish is also important: Clams and mussels are filter feeders, and if their water contains pollution or harmful bacteria, so will they.

    Therefore, avoid roadside stands and people selling shellfish off the back of trucks, and, if you decide to gather your own, check with the authorities to make sure the area where you plan to gather is safe before you do.

    Once you get home with your shellfish you will have to keep them alive until you're ready to cook them, and since the preparation does take a while you might as well start immediately. Why the preparation? Because shellfish are filter feeders and bottom dwellers, and therefore tend to be quite sandy.

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  • 02 of 09

    How to prepare clams or mussels

    To remove sand and silt from live clams, soak them in lightly salted water for several hours.
    To remove sand and silt from live clams, soak them in lightly salted water for several hours.
    If you have access to clean seawater, use it. Otherwise, fill a plastic bucket with tap water, adding one part non-iodized salt for every ten parts water (by weight; this works out to 1 pound salt for every 10 pints water, or 500 g per every 5 liters, and let the water sit for several hours to give the chlorine or other water-purification gasses it may contain time to bubble out (treated water straight from the tap can kill what's put into it). Scrub the clams well, or, if you're preparing mussels, scrape away their beards with a knife and scrub them; should you find any animals with broken shells discard them.
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  • 03 of 09

    Soaking will Purge Clams or Mussels of Sand and Grit

    The water, after removing the clams, will be quite silty.
    The water, after removing the clams, will be quite silty.
    Soak your shellfish -- in this case I had a 1-kilo, or 2 1/4-pound bag of clams -- in salted water in the refrigerator for several hours, or overnight; during this time they will purge themselves of sand and grit, which will be left behind when you remove them from the container.
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  • 04 of 09

    Transfer the Clams or Mussels to a Large Pot

    Put the clams in a large untreated skillet
    Put the clams in a large untreated skillet.
    I was making a white clam sauce; if your recipe calls for other ingredients at this point add them as well. In any case, use an untreated pot as the hard shells will scratch a non-stick surface, and set the pot, covered, over the fire. Very shortly you'll begin to hear popping sounds: The clams are snapping open.Don't turn the heat too high lest the liquor they give off either boil over or dry out. The clams will be cooked in about 5 minutes. Don't overcook, because that will toughen the clams.
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  • 05 of 09

    Cooked Clams

    In a few minutes the clams will be done.
    In a few minutes the clams will be done.

    At this point your clams are cooked; pick over them and discard any that have remained shut tight: They were already dead before you put them in the pot, and eating them could make you quite sick!

    If you're making something along the lines of stewed clams or mussels, serve them as they are, and enjoy fishing the shells from your bowl and sucking out the shellfish. If you are instead making pasta sauce, shuck most of them, leaving a few in their shells for aesthetic appeal. In either case, strain and reserve to pot liquor.

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  • 06 of 09

    Chopping the Herbs for the Clam Sauce

    Chopping herbs with a Mezzaluna
    Chopping herbs with a Mezzaluna.
    I was making spaghetti with clams, in bianco -- in other words, without tomato. It's a quick, easy to prepare dish. I minced a handful of parsley with a large clove of garlic using a mezzaluna, the classic crescent-shaped knife Italians use for these tasks. If you have one, you might want to add a small seeded, ribbed hot pepper the herbs.
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  • 07 of 09

    Sauteing the Herbs

    Sauteing herbs to make a soffritto
    Sauteing herbs to make a soffritto.

    While I was cooking the clams I had also set a pot of pasta water to boil, and by this time it had begun to bubble, so I salted it and added a pound of spaghetti (for 4 people), giving the pot a stir to separate the strands.

    I next wiped out the skillet I had cooked the clams in, and then heated about a half cup of extra virgin olive oil; when it was hot I added the herbs and cooked, stirring, until the garlic began to color. It's important not to overbrown the garlic, lest it become bitter.

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  • 08 of 09

    Adding the Pasta and the Clams

    Add pasta and clams to the sauteed herbs
    Add pasta and clams to the sauteed herbs.

    By now the pasta was on the firmer side of -- in other words, barely cooked, and still rather chewy -- I drained it, gave it a good shake, and then turned it into the skillet, together with the clams and the clam liquor, and turned the heat up to high.

    This technique of cooking pasta in a skillet with the sauce is called strascicato, and the pasta absorbs the flavor of the sauce as it cooks. Don't cook it for more than a minute or two, lest the sauce dry out, and stir constantly as you cook to keep the strands from sticking to either each other or the pot. Don't forget to check seasoning as you stir; I added some dried hot pepper flakes.

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  • 09 of 09

    Spaghetti alle Vongole, Ready to be Served

    Spaghetti alle Vongole, or with Clams: Mix well, and serve!
    Spaghetti alle Vongole, or with Clams: Mix well, and serve!.

    Done! Spaghetti with fresh clams are much richer than spaghetti made with canned clams, so if you have access to them, do try this clam sauce.

    To serve 4 as a first course, you'll need:

    • 2 1/4 pounds (1 k) live clams
    • Sea salt (or Kosher salt) sufficient to salt the purging water
    • A handful of parsley and a clove of garlic, minced
    • 1 pound (450 g) spaghetti
    • 1/2 cup olive oil (you could also use 1/4 cup each oil and unsalted butter)
    • Salt, pepper, and hot pepper to taste. A dash of oregano might be nice, but I didn't add it this time
    • No Cheese -- Italians generally don't serve cheese with fish sauces

    The wine? White, a Fiano di Avellino. And a tossed salad.