THE WASHINGTON POST – One of my favourite romantic movies (if ‘romantic’ is even the right word, given the ending) is Heartburn, Nora Ephron’s bruising roman à clef about the dissolution of her marriage to Carl Bernstein. The movie, like the book on which it’s based, gives food space enough to be its own character.
When I think of romance at its apex, I think of Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson sharing a bed, eating from a veritable trough of spaghetti carbonara. The book is a good read, but if you want a good moment of happiness, followed by sadness, followed by vindication – all played out within one hour and 48 minutes and clinched with a pie to the face – put on your elastic-waisted pants, tuck in and enjoy the show.
In Ephron’s romantic comedy, the pasta of love is carbonara, but in my romantic comedy, linguine with clams plays the starring role. When I’m feeling particularly generous toward my husband (who has never, to my knowledge, been hit in the face with a pie), I make this favourite pasta dish of ours, with a mix of canned and fresh clams. Sometimes, I finish it with parsley. On the nights when urgency outweighs presentation, I scoop giant bowls of it out and take my first bites standing over the counter.
The first time I made it for him, in the first year of our courtship, I tried it with fresh pasta. The recipe did not survive the winter, though our relationship did. Did you know that fresh pasta acts as a sponge, absorbing the precious sauce that lies in wait? Six years ago, I did not. That’s the kind of thing you learn in a marriage, I guess, and the kind of thing you learn in an active relationship with food, my other true love.
The rule in our house now goes like this: Don’t you dare even try it. And by “it”, I mean buy fresh linguine to serve with clams.
Some nights I make this as a matter of tradition. On Christmas Eve, it appears by request, as the final course on our Feast of Seven Fishes, prepared for my Italian-Polish husband, by his multi-racial wife. The other nights are sometimes random.
Maybe Nat, the 13th-generation bay fisherman who lives two blocks over, sends a text about the haul that just came in. Maybe it’s a summer night and the mood just feels good for clams. Maybe I’m feeling generous. Or maybe it’s the kind of night for pulling out all the stops and producing a romantic overture. I’m talking the whole enchilada: the parsley, yes, but also the thick puck of butter swirled in at the end, and the toasted garlic panko bread crumbs, handmade, sprinkled on top (just a touch; you don’t want the whole thing drying out on you).
My mother is allergic, so even though I’m from Massachusetts I didn’t start eating clams until adulthood, and then I couldn’t really stop. My husband describes a youth inflected with bivalves. His Italian grandmother fed them to him as a baby. He is the one who taught me to add canned clams to the mix, to amplify the flavour of the littlenecks. “It’s so much better this way,” he told me, and really, he isn’t wrong.
On February 14, you should eat with the one you love. That can be a friend, a family member, a spouse, or even yourself. You should also eat something that is purely delicious, such as this dish: romantic in its rusticity, perfect in the marriage of its parts.
Linguine alle Vongole (Linguine With Clams)
Total time: 45 minutes, plus about one hour for soaking clams
Four to six servings
A combination of whole and canned clams add texture and a deep, briny flavour to this much-beloved Ligurian dish (loved so much, perhaps, because of the region’s proximity to the sea). There will be a fair amount of pots and bowls to wash – a minimum of three – but you can make a few of the elements, like the crunchy breadcrumbs, in advance.
Make Ahead: The bread crumb mixture can be prepared up to three days in advance.
Storage Notes: Leftover pasta can be refrigerated for up to two days. Gently reheat in a nonstick skillet with a slick of olive oil.
Where to Buy: Littleneck clams can be found at well-stocked supermarkets or your local seafood store.
36 littleneck clams, in shells
Four tablespoons (two ounces) unsalted butter, divided
13 cloves garlic, divided (about one head)
One quarter cup panko or Italian bread crumbs
One-and a-half teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (from one lemon)
One quarter cup extra-virgin olive oil
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
One (10-ounce) can chopped clams, drained and liquid reserved
One pound dried linguine
Half a cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
About one hour before you plan to cook, purge the littleneck clams of sand and grit: Fill a large bowl with cold water and add enough salt to it so it tastes like the sea. Add the clams and let stand for about 20 minutes. Lift the clams from the water and discard the water – if there is any sand on the bottom of the bowl, rinse it out. Repeat this process two more times.
Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil over high heat.
Meanwhile, in an eight-inch skillet over medium heat, melt two tablespoons of the butter.
Mince or finely grate three garlic cloves and add them to the skillet. Season with a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until aromatic, 30 seconds. Add the bread crumbs, and cook, stirring or shaking constantly, until they just begin to brown, about two minutes. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and stir the lemon zest to combine.
In a very large skillet or another large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, heat the olive oil and melt one tablespoon of butter.
Slice the remaining 10 garlic cloves and add to the skillet or pot along with the red pepper flakes, if using. Cook, stirring, until the garlic just starts to brown, about two minutes. Add the liquid from the chopped clams, bring to a boil and cook until reduced by half, about five minutes.
Add the whole clams to the pot, stirring briefly to combine. Cover and cook until all the clams open, checking on them every two to three minutes and removing them as they open. You should hear a rattling sound as the clams open one by one. Quickly rinse out the bowl you used for purging the clams and set it near your workspace. Using tongs, transfer the opened clams to the bowl and cover to keep warm. Discard any clams that refuse to open – this should be clear after about seven minutes.
Remove 12 clams from the shells and return them to the sauce. Add the chopped clams and cook until the liquid has reduced by a third, about five minutes.
When the water comes to a boil, season it with enough salt so it’s mildly salty. Add the pasta and cook two minutes less than the instructions on the package. Set aside one cup of the starchy pasta water and then, using tongs, transfer the pasta to the pan with the clams and coat with the clam sauce.
Add the reserved pasta water to the sauce one quarter cup at a time, stirring vigorously with tongs or a wooden spoon.
If the pasta absorbs all of the water, add more until there is a thick, slightly pooled sauce at the bottom of the pan.
Turn off the heat and stir in the remaining one tablespoon of butter until it melts and coats the strands – they should look glossy but not wet. Stir in the chopped parsley. Divide the pasta among the bowls, topping each bowl with the reserved clams in the shell. Evenly divide the bread crumbs over the pasta and serve.