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Archive for the ‘Pasta’ Category

There were Maine shrimp in my fish market last week! They’d been gone for three years, since commercial shrimp fishing in the Gulf of Maine was closed down after a disastrous 2013 season. The moratorium is still in effect, but thanks to an increase in the amounts shrimpers may take for scientific sampling purposes – and then sell – this year, small quantities of these delicious little critters are getting to our area. Hooray!
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maine-shrimp-in-shell

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These bright red shrimps are really tiny. That’s half a pound of them, raw in their shells. Most often I just drop them in boiling water for one minute, then cool, shell, chill, and serve them with a homemade cocktail sauce. They make a lovely shrimp cocktail. This time I was going to use them in a pasta dish, so I shelled them raw. Stripped of their long heads, shells, tails, legs, feelers, and roe, they came to a mere 3½ ounces. Wish I’d bought more!
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maine-shrimp-shelled

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Even though the shrimps were going to combine with pasta, I wanted to keep everything simple: Maine shrimps should shine through their accompaniments. So I chose for the sauce of my pasta dish a basic agli’e olio (It’s not spelled that way, I know; but in this Neapolitan-American household, it’s pronounced that way), the making of which is Beloved Spouse’s specialty. So while our spaghetti was cooking, he minced some cloves of garlic, seethed them in olive oil without allowing them to color, and tossed in chopped parsley, salt, and a pinch of crushed red pepper.
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aglie-olio

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Moments before the spaghetti was done we added the shrimp to the saucepan and stirred them around until they just lost their translucence, about two minutes. All that remained to be done was drain the pasta, put it in bowls, and dress it with the shrimp and sauce.
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pasta-and-shrimp

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So simple, and so scrumptious! Delicate as Maine shrimp are, their sweetness and succulence contribute immensely to any dish they’re invited into. I hope there’ll be enough of them for me to invite into several more meals this winter, before their very short season is over.

For my next batch I’m thinking I might want to see how Maine shrimp would handle the spicy sauce of Galatoire’s Shrimp Remoulade. And if that works, maybe try giving Galatoire’s Crabmeat Maison a Yankee twist by substituting Maine shrimp for crab. If there’s time enough, we shall see.

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In our recent week’s vacation in Rome, Beloved Spouse and I dined only in restaurants we’d known and loved for years. We really had meant to try new places – I had a list – but once we were there, we couldn’t resist our old favorites. In my last post I wrote about our dinners at three of them; now I’ll describe the other three.
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campana-menu

We’ve been dining at La Campana for more than 30 years. It never seems to change, which is a comfort in this very unstable world. The image above is from my copy of its paper menu of July 7, 1979, all handwritten entries, reproduced in lurid purple ink. We’ve always eaten very well there and did again this time. Extravagantly, we both chose fettucine with white truffles for our first course (€50 a portion: about $55).
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white-truffle

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These truffles were much whiter than the ones Tom had a few days previously (a good thing: the paler, the better). Though they weren’t strewn as lavishly over the pasta as in the other dish, their flavor was much more intense, almost intoxicating. Interestingly, I have another of La Campana’s paper menus from fall 1990, which lists fettucine with white truffles for 35,000 lire. That amounted to $28 then, which would be about $50 in today’s dollars, so the price has hardly gone up in all that time.

For our second courses, Tom had petto di vitello arrosto, roasted breast of veal, and I had abbacchio arrosto, baby lamb, both with roasted rosemary potatoes and a light pan gravy. Both were quite simple and quite delicious Roman classics. Baby lamb here really is baby lamb: a tiny, pale-fleshed animal with a lot of gelatin and cartilage where Americans expect bone. And veal here means a milk-fed young animal, not a half-grown steer.
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vitello

abbacchio-campana

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La Campana’s menus now are multi-paged, printed, and encased in leather binders, so I fear I won’t be able to expand my collection any further. But I do cherish the old ones I have.
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sora-lella

Sora Lella is the only restaurant on the tiny Tiber Island, which stands in the middle of the river in Rome. Still family-owned and -run, it offers a large menu of classic Roman dishes, ever-so-slightly lightened. We started with two of the house’s specialty fried antipasti: suppli (rice balls) and polpettini (meat balls).
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polpettini-suppli

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Uncharacteristically for us, we skipped pasta that evening and went on to secondi: trippa alla romana for Tom, pollo alla romana for me. The tripe was of several kinds, not just the honeycomb that’s all we get in the US, well cooked to tenderness in a tomato sauce flavored with celery and cloves and generously topped with pecorino cheese. My chicken was a free-range farm bird, stewed with luscious sweet red peppers and a little tomato.
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trippa

pollo

torta.
With just room for a little dessert, we shared another very typical Roman dish: a slice of ricotta torte with a bottom layer of sour-cherry preserve.

 

 

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ar-galletto-awning

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And now I have to report the one disappointing experience of our Roman dining week: Ar Galletto. We used to love this place when it was known as Da Giovanni ar Galletto, a scruffy, unpretentious, side-street trattoria, cheerful, noisy, and much frequented by locals. A few years ago it moved a short distance to large quarters on the Piazza Farnese, decorated its rooms in chilly Milanese-modern style, extensively upgraded its menu – and sold its soul.

It disappointed us on our last trip to Rome, but we wanted to try it again this time in case it had recovered. It hasn’t. Giovanni’s brusque charm and his devotion to quality have gone forever. The waiters now seem to see their role as jollying international tourists rather than intelligently serving their food or knowing their wine list. The kitchen turns out some good dishes, but also some bad ones, apparently aiming more to impress than to please.

For example, of our pasta courses, ravioli filled with oxtail (coda alla vaccinara) and dressed with the same oxtail sauce was excellent. Short pasta alla gricia (the sauce mainly rendered guanciale and grated pecorino) was thick and gummy, not much improved by the addition of cooked artichoke.
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ravioli-gricia

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And of our main courses, abbacchio arrosto was as it should be, but maialino arrosto was inedible. The pork seemed to have been cooked and sliced in the morning, left out to dry and harden, and then heated up in a microwave.
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abbacchio-galletto

maialino-galletto

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Finally, ordering the wine produced a textbook example of waiterly ineptitude: See Tom’s blog post “Wining in Rome” for the absurd story. So, here’s one name to strike off our list of Roman restaurants to return to. But the contrast in the experience makes us appreciate the other great dining places all the more. Maybe not everything is eternal in the Eternal City, but enough good survives to make us look forward to our next visit.

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My trip to Rome earlier this month was, gastronomically, very much of an auld lang syne experience. Beloved Spouse and I dined only at restaurants we’ve known and loved for years, and mostly on dishes that we’ve often eaten there and that are a large part of the reason we love them. Here are what we had on three of the days.

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fortunato-al-pantheon

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Fortunato al Pantheon
is a slightly austere establishment, favored by politicians from the nearby national Parliament. It was a modest trattoria years ago, when we first discovered it, but it has grown in elegance while still retaining its basic honesty.

The moment we walked into the dining room, we smelled truffles. Wow! We hadn’t expected the season to have started yet. We couldn’t resist them, but first we had to have antipasti: a pair of carciofi alla romana and a plate of salume.
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fortunato-1

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Then came the truffles. For Tom, tagliarini topped at tableside with shavings of a single large white truffle; and for me tagliarini already dressed with a sauce of black truffle and porcini mushrooms. By our waiter’s courtesy, I also received the last little bits of Tom’s white truffle.
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tartufi-bianchi

Tagliarini con tartufi bianchi

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tartufi-neri

Tagliarini con tartufi neri e funghi porcini

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These were both stunningly rich dishes, but after them we felt we could manage a little dessert: a dish of fragoline con panna and a small tiramisù.
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fortunato-3

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Walking back to our hotel, we pondered one of the enduring mysteries of Roman dining: How do you get fresh artichokes, wild strawberries, and truffles at the same season?
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checchino

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Another evening found us at Checchino dal 1887. It’s in Testaccio, the epicenter of Rome’s ancient quinto quarto cuisine – i.e., variety meats, or more simply, offal. Testaccio used to be the butcher’s section of the city, and the “fifth quarter” of the animal was what the poor got, after the best cuts went to the aristocracy, the clergy, the bourgeoisie, and the military. Dishes made from those innards, though not for today’s faint-hearted eater, are central to Rome’s traditional cuisine.

Here, Tom always starts with the same pasta dish: rigatoni con pajata. Pajata is the small intestine of milk-fed lamb, still filled with partially digested milk. Tied into little sausages and cooked in tomato sauce, it’s delicious beyond what you would expect. That evening I chose an equally traditional, though meatless, first course: pasta e ceci (chickpeas).
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checchino-1-1

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I made up for that reticence with my second course, padellotto alla macellara. This “butcher’s platter” was a sauté of pajata, liver, sweetbreads, and testicolo. (Yes, testicle). Not your everyday plate of protein. Tom had a bollito misto – mixed boiled meats – including on this occasion beef, calf’s tongue, and a small pig’s foot.
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padelotto.
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I must admit, we couldn’t finish either of these ample plates.
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zi-umberto

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Osteria da Zi’ Umberto
is a small, lively, bustling, casual eating place in Trastevere. Though not strong on atmosphere and looking a little run-down, it turns out very good, mostly rustic food at relatively modest prices. After starting with a few fiori fritti (batter-fried zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovies), we had first courses of pappardelle with wild boar sauce and fettuccine with porcini mushrooms.
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2-umberto-pastas

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Then Tom had oxtails – coda alla vaccinara – and I had suckling pig – maialino arrosto con patate. Both were beautifully prepared.
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coda

 

maialino-arrosto.

At all these meals we drank wine, of course – mostly wines of Rome’s Lazio region, which aren’t commonly available in New York – and ended with espressos and grappa. Many interesting kinds of grappa. Tom has written a post about the wines for his blog, which you can see here.

Our remaining three dinners in Rome are described in my next post.

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Cooking may not be the first thing anyone would think of in connection with Sophia Loren. But in fact, that gorgeous and talented woman – who once said “Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti” – loves food and cooking and knows a lot about it. She has written (alone; no “coauthor”) a pair of cookbooks, one of which I acquired many years ago in Rome.

cucina-con-amore

It’s a chatty book, a bit of a challenge for my limited knowledge of Italian, but very interesting to read, with a distinctive personal voice. The recipes are written in the typical throw-away Italian manner: giving hardly any quantities, detailed instructions, or cooking times – just a casual narrative, as if the reader of course knows how these sorts of dishes are made. Hence, it’s also a good challenge for my culinary instincts.
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This week I embarked on Loren’s Minestra di pasta e patate. Americans may cringe at the combination of starch and starch, but the whole concept of “a starch” is alien to Italy. Potatoes are a vegetable; pasta goes well with vegetables; what could hurt? Italian cuisine has many recipes for pasta with potatoes, and in recent years the dish has become fashionable in Italy.  Chefs and cookbook writers work this simple peasant recipe with all kinds of culinary bells and whistles – which is fine: they all taste good. But the main reason they do is because of the simple brilliance of the combination of basic ingredients. Loren’s version, which she may have learned from her childhood in the slums of Pozzuoli, is, as she says, truly a dish of the poor, but it is wonderfully good.

The recipe calls for a kilo of potatoes, which is the only ingredient given a measurement; I had to estimate everything else. Actually, I was making a smaller quantity, since what I had in the pantry was 12 ounces of small boiling potatoes. So Beloved Spouse and I conferred and chose the other quantities. To start, I gently softened 4 chopped plum tomatoes, a few basil leaves, and ⅓ cup of chopped carrot in just a film of olive oil, for 10 minutes.

minestra-base

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Next I stirred in the potatoes, cut in small pieces, and raised the heat.

with-potatoes

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When the mixture came to a simmer I covered the pot, reduced the heat to low, and cooked until the potatoes were beginning to soften, which took about 12 minutes. Then I added two cups of hot water and four ounces of bucatini, broken into small pieces.

invisible-pasta

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As you can see above, that made the dish quite soupy. (The pasta sank immediately; you can’t see it at all there.) But a minestra is not exactly a soup: it’s denser and less brothy, though wetter than a typically sauced dish of pasta. So I kept the pot simmering, uncovered, until the pasta and potatoes were both al dente and the liquid much reduced and slightly thickened. That’s it: it was ready to eat.

served

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Plain as it looks, this was pure ambrosia; total comfort food. Though the recipe mentions no condiments at all, I suspected that a dinner table in Naples would be bound to have salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes, olive oil, and grated pecorino on it, so diners could season their bowl to their taste. So we did that. I can report that pasta and potatoes loves all those things, in almost any combination. Beloved Spouse is of the opinion that adding a pinch or two of crushed red pepper to the pot while cooking would have raised the magic even a notch higher. As it was, we two had no trouble finishing most of this classic Neapolitan dish.

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P.S. An amusing aspect of the book is its array of photos of Sophia, in both “glamour” and “culinary” settings. Here are a few:

sophia-pix

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Pasta alla Carbonara

It’s always interesting to look at a recipe for a very different version of a very familiar dish. Will it be as good as the way I make it? Will it be better? My newest cookbook acquisition, Tasting Rome, by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill, offers several opportunities for those comparisons, since I love Roman cuisine. The first recipe I ventured on was pasta alla carbonara, a dish especially dear to Romans and a staple at my house.

Parla 2As the authors – young American food journalists who live in Rome – say, this is a dish whose exact ingredients and technique give rise to passionate argument among Roman cooks (among whom I like to think myself an honorary member). My own recipe, published in Tom’s and my 1988 cookbook La Tavola Italiana, is of course the version I like best, so I looked at theirs with a critical eye. They offer two versions, both with differences from mine, most notably one that makes the sauce in a double boiler. I’d never heard of that, so it’s the one I decided to try.
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The book’s recipe begins by having you sauté small strips of guanciale in olive oil, drain it and let it cool.

guanciale

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My recipe starts there too, but it calls for pancetta, because it used to be hard to get guanciale here and pancetta is an accepted alternative in Rome. I dice it smaller and sauté it with onion and a peperoncino, in both olive oil and butter. (Nowadays, I often use bacon, which some say is the original meat ingredient of the dish, created post-WW II, when American GIs brought their bacon and powdered eggs to Rome.)
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According to Tasting Rome’s recipe, while the pasta is cooking, you beat together eggs, grated pecorino Romano, black pepper, and water in the top of a double boiler over simmering water, whisking continually until the cheese melts and the mixture thickens.

sauce

My recipe calls for simply beating the eggs in a bowl with pecorino and parmigiano, salt, pepper, and parsley.

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Back to Parla and Gill: Off heat, you stir the guanciale and the cooked pasta into the sauce in the double boiler; transfer it to individual bowls, and sprinkle each portion with more grated pecorino and black pepper.

carbonara

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That last step was also a very significant difference. In my version, I add slightly underdone pasta to the warm pancetta-onion mixture in its sauté pan, toss over low heat to coat the pasta with butter and oil and finish its cooking; then, off heat, stir in the egg-cheese mixture and serve. That procedure creates a sauce with a very different mouth feel, and one I like a lot better.

For me, the double-boiler sauce was too glutinous, and since I couldn’t coat the pasta first with the mixed fats, it absorbed too much of the sauce and came out tasting flat and floury. And despite how smooth the sauce had seemed in the pan, on the pasta it was somewhat grainy – not pleasant to the tongue. Oh, well – de gustibus.

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Rearranging some bookshelves recently, I had to move my 19 volumes of Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano novels. Just looking at them made me hungry. The Sicilian dishes that the inspector consumes in every story make me want to sit down beside him and pick up a knife and fork. Failing that, I reached for my copy of Stefania Campo’s I Segreti della Tavola di Montalbano and browsed the book for recipes that I hadn’t yet tried.

montalbano cookbookThis time I liked one for involtini di melanzane. These are fried eggplant slices rolled around a filling of spaghetti dressed with tomato sauce, baked with a topping of more sauce and shavings of ricotta salata – a dish that the cookbook says contains all the flavors of Palermo. Montalbano eats these involtini in a short story that hasn’t yet been translated into English: “Un Caso di Omonimia,” which my dictionary tells me means “A Coincidence of Names.”

I found the entire Italian text of the story online, and with help from my friends Betty and Livio, who are knowledgeable in both Italian and Sicilian (much of the narrative is in dialect), I managed to make out enough to understand the dining situation.

After a big fight with Livia, Montalbano goes to spend the Christmas holidays with an old friend in Palermo. Regrettably, his friend’s wife is a terrible cook. One day, after walking around the city feeling melancholy, he decides to console himself by eating at a tiny osteria that he patronizes whenever he’s in Palermo. The proprietor-waiter is Don Peppe; in the kitchen is his wife, who “knows how to make things the way God wants them.” There, Montalbano “with eyes half closed from the pleasure, scarfed down a dish of involtini di melanzane con la pasta e la ricotta salata.

That was his first course. He never gets to his second course that evening – but you don’t need to hear the whole plot of the mystery. Let me tell you about the dish as I made it.

The recipe called for three “big” eggplants, and of course what’s big in Italy isn’t necessarily big in America. For the half quantity, supposedly serving two, that I was making I’d chosen one large, long, straight eggplant so I’d have slices big enough to wrap. Beloved Spouse did his usual expert knife work to produce them. I salted the slices and set them in colanders for half an hour.

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salting

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At that point the recipe said “then fry them” – no details. I dried my slices with a linen cloth, pressing as much liquid out of them as I could. I fried them in shallow olive oil until they browned a bit and felt soft enough to curve around a filling but not so soft as to fall apart. Needless to say, they absorbed a fair amount of oil: So much the better – or the worse, depending on your view of olive oil.

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frying

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For the filling, half the indicated amount of spaghetti would have been a little over five ounces. That seemed like a lot, so I cooked less and dressed it with my own simple tomato sauce with garlic and basil. Since I had seven eggplant slices to fill, I slid the spaghetti onto a prep board and divided it into seven little swirls. My eggplant slices accepted all the spaghetti and curved comfortably, if messily, around it.

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rolled

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Then it was just a matter of ladling a little more sauce on the rolls and shaving ricotta salata on top before putting the dish briefly in a hot oven. The recipe would have wanted seven ounces of ricotta. That seemed like an enormous amount, so I used much less, doing it just by eyeball. That was a mistake. I had sheep-milk ricotta, which was very flavorful but dense and dry, and it didn’t melt or even spread in the oven. I should have grated it and used a lot more.

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served

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Even so, the dish was excellent. The flavors complemented each other in the same way as a good dish of pasta alla Norma does. But it was far too much for two first-course servings: We couldn’t possibly finish it all. I’m pretty sure Montalbano could have, though!

 

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Linguine with Clam Sauce

I think of pasta with red clam sauce as a classic summer dish. There’s no logic to that: A fine version can be made just as well in winter, using canned Italian plum tomatoes. But for me, the dish is the quintessence of summer, and there’s a reason why.

In the early summers of our marriage, Tom and I spent many weekends at a little cottage that my parents had on Long Island’s Shinnecock Bay. There the new son-in-law was initiated into the mysteries of local fishing, crabbing, and clamming. He took to them with enthusiasm, not least because they all resulted in good things to eat. (Waterskiing, not so much.)

The two-fisted fisherman and me on the family boat

The two-fisted fisherman and me on the family boat, 1971

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Clams were abundant then, because commercial dredgers would seed the mud flats in the bay to ensure their supply, and anyone could work those areas at low tide – as long you were willing to slog backwards through chest-high water dragging your clam rake along until you hit a sweet spot. Tom didn’t initially think that was much fun, until he saw the heaps of tiny, succulent clams we got there – a mere inch across the hinge (the smallest legal size), sometimes a dozen in a single rakeful. As a result, linguine with clam sauce became one of our marriage’s earliest culinary specialties.

NTSOSSThe recipe we eventually developed for ourselves was published in our short-lived mini e-cookbook, Not the Same Old Spaghetti Sauce. (Gone now. After a year or two, the publisher gave up.) In the familiar Italian-American style of this dish, the clams are swathed in a thick tomato sauce. Our recipe is a lighter, brighter version – a style we’d encountered at trattorias on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. The sauce is mainly olive oil and clam broth, with tomato, garlic, and parsley almost as cooked-in condiments.

In Italy, the tiny clams used for this dish are vongole veraci or telline, delicious Mediterranean species. Now that those sweet-fleshed Shinnecock Bay clams are only a fond memory, we buy New Zealand cockles, or failing those, small Manila clams. Both work well in pasta alle vongole. Here’s the pound of the cockles I used for two portions the other day:

cockles

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To make the sauce base, I heated half a cup of olive oil and added a small dried hot red pepper and a chopped anchovy filet. When the anchovy had dissolved, I removed the pepper and added two tablespoons of thinly sliced garlic, letting it soften but not brown. (That may seem like a lot of garlic, but the way it’s treated keeps it mild and sweet, without lessening its vampire-deterring ability.) Next I added half a cup of fish stock – from a bouillon cube this time, though I prefer homemade shellfish broth or bottled clam juice when available – a touch of salt, and a sprinkling of parsley.

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sauce 1

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Nothing else needed to be done until nearly dinner time. Then I dropped half a pound of linguine into boiling water, and while it was cooking I reheated the sauce base and stirred in the tomato. Normally, I use two thirds of a cup of raw tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped, but I had some fresh, light tomato sauce in the refrigerator (from my annual August processing of a 25-pound box of San Marzanos: eight quart jars of whole tomatoes, eight pint jars of simple sauce, this year) so I used about a third of a cup of the extra sauce.

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sauce 2

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When the pasta was almost done I raised the flame under the sauce to high, stirred in the clams, covered the pan, and cooked just a minute or two, until they opened. Transferred the pasta to the sauce pan just long enough to toss everything together, and served.

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pasta with clams

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Absolutely lovely! It came out brothier than usual this time, but no problem: a few rounds of toasted country bread were only too happy to soak up those flavors. They also added a pleasing rustic touch to what is, after all, a simple seaside dish, not a culinary tour de force – no matter how good it may taste. And it did. It was delicious to the last shell.

shells

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