Saturday, May 26, 2012

Confessions of a Clam Smuggler

If you're a friend of mine in the U.S. and have come to visit in the nearly 20 years I've been living in Europe, you've heard the request when you tell me you're coming. There are just some groceries you can't get here, and, although things have improved, I still make requests. Cornmeal, for instance. It's not that there isn't corn in Europe, but it's just the wrong grind. We have a very fine one which Turks (and, I think, others) use to make a gruel, and a coarser one which is sold as polenta. The one I want for cornbread falls right in the middle. So a bag of cornmeal, preferably Lamb's, is welcome. When strawberries are in season, as they are now, I used to ask for some Grape Nuts, but these days I have a good supply rescued from the English Corner Shop's closing. Their price, too, was a big change from that shop in Amsterdam where all the homesick American, British, and German expats go, where I used to buy Grape Nuts for a whopping €7 a box. Another old favorite, Zip-Loc bags, has also fallen off the list, since whoever owns it has licensed that technology to several European companies, and I can now buy them at the corner supermarket.

But that leaves an old favorite: canned clams. As far back as I can remember I've loved spaghetti and clam sauce. I used to buy cans of Progresso white clam sauce as soon as I started cooking for myself. Eventually, though, I realized that it was stupid to pay that much for something I could likely make better myself, and when the first edition of Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cooking (which you can buy from the Amazon gadget over on the right, along with many other great cookbooks, of which I get a tiny percentage of the purchase price) came my way, I found what I was looking for. She noted in the introduction to the recipe that it had two things that you never find in Italian fish recipes, butter and Parmesan, but the recipe would suffer without them. I whipped some up. It rocked. I had other pasta-and-clam recipes, including one that I found in the New York Times where the sauce and the pasta were finished up by encasing them in foil and baking them, which I sure wish I had today, but this one quickly became my favorite.

Then something odd happened. Hazan combined the two volumes of Classic Italian Cooking into one volume, called Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, and...the recipe vanished. Another one took its place, and it wasn't nearly as good. Fortunately, I had the old one memorized by then, and it remains my go-to recipe today. When, that is, I can get clams. Which I can't.

But, but, you say, you live practically on the Mediterranean! And yes, I can get those little clams, which are sweet and delicious and I know the old trick of scattering them around a pan and covering it until they open and there's a broth there and scooping them out and preserving the broth and making the clam sauce that way. And I've eaten in Italian restaurants where the "sauce" is a heaping handful of those clams in the shell mixed in with the pasta, which has to be one of the most annoying things it's possible to eat, because you have to fish around for the clams and stick the shells somewhere and meanwhile everything else is getting cold. But surely, you say, there are clams available in a jar or something. And yes, or at least there were in Berlin, where the Italian grocery store had them. They cost about €6 a jar, and there was almost no broth. They were commendably salty, but expensive. And I haven't seen them at all here in France.

Thus, I ask visitors to bring them. I loaded three cans into my luggage in Brooklyn in early April. They are, alas, gone now. And I say alas because of a sad fact about spaghetti with clam sauce in my life: it's become the ultimate broke-not-poor food. When the food starts running out and the check is far away, or, worse, there is no check on the horizon, there's almost always a can of clams stuck away. The first can of this last batch went when there was still plenty of food around, but I hadn't had this dish in so long I wasn't going to wait. It was good. The other two, though, succumbed to the usual protocol, the last one about a week ago as things got really touch and go. And now there are none. Surely one of you has heard the siren song of the Languedoc and is planning to drop by this summer...

But for those of you in the U.S. (or anywhere else you have access to this to-me exotic foodstuff), you probably wonder about Marcella's Forbidden Clam Sauce recipe. Fine: as part of our ongoing Broke-Not-Poor Cuisine series, I present it to you now.

* * *

Here's what you need to gather together to make this: 

There's parsley, white wine (sauvignon blanc), olive oil, shallots, red chile peppers (optional, but more photogenic for our purposes here) and one can of clams. Not shown is the Parmesan, which is still in the fridge, or the garlic, for some reason. 

The first thing you do is chop the shallots and saute them in olive oil. Yes, you can (and I have) use yellow onions, although they're not as good. You cannot (I discovered one day) use red onions and have this taste very good. (I ate it anyhow, of course, because it was what was for dinner). 

When they've gotten transparent, add the garlic and stir it around the oil briefly. Then you add some wine. How much? Enough to float the bits of sauteed stuff off the bottom of the pan; maybe a bit more. At this point, you also add the chile peppers and a couple of tablespoons of chopped parsley. 

Don't turn down the heat. Let this come to a slow boil and boil it for a few minutes, until the wine's reduced by at least half. Then add the juice from the can of clams. 

Let this boil, too. The wine and the clam tastes are blending, as you'll smell. You should start your spaghetti (actually, linguini by preference and tradition) at this point so it'll be ready when the sauce is. After it all boils down, it's nice and concentrated. Then add the clams and let them heat up.

Now, take it off the heat, and take a hunk of butter and a whisk and whisk it in to emulsify the sauce. 

And you can figure out the drill from here: drain your cooked pasta, and mix it with the sauce and some Parmesan, top with more Parmesan, and dig in. 

Dang, that's making me hungry just looking at it. Fortunately, I have a little food in the house now, thanks to a small check, and so I'll be photographing another recipe tonight. Tomorrow will feature the weirdest thing I got from the English Corner Shop's demise: a turkey, which I'll be sharing with E, since his wife J, who's vegetarian, is out of town. And that should leave me with some leftovers to make turkey enchiladas with. 

Oh, yeah, that's another thing I smuggle from the States and request from visitors from Texas: corn tortillas. But that's another thing entirely. 

And, better-nourished than I've been for a week, I'll bang away at yet another book proposal. I'll beat this broke-not-poor thing yet!


  1. How far is it to Spain? They love their almejas, and I'm pretty sure they have them in tins. But it may not be the right kind of clams in the right kind of broth.

  2. Pasta alla Vongole is my potential nemesis, since I'm gluten-intolerant and violently, emetically allergic to clams. I was offered it once as comfort food when I was feeling off-colour in Italy. Oops! :D
    I don't know if I'm allergic to American clams, though (it was a delicious Portuguese meal of pork and clams which seems to have started the allergy - must have had a bad one in there) - but to be honest, I'm not going to risk trying. So, farewell, clams.

  3. Dear "H"....I made pasta with clams for a 6-person (two of us happen to live in this house), disastrous dinner party here last year.

    Well....the conversation was pleasant, the dogs acted tolerably well, etcetera....but nobody ate anything.

    Turned out that 2 of my longtime friends had, without telling me, gone on the Atkins diet, another was "allergic" to garlic (I'm not quite sure about that one, but I don't tend to call my guests self-indulgent pains-in-the-ass on their first visit)....and the fourth was genuinely & extremely allergic to shellfish. She'd learned that by eating shrimp years previously. We all agreed it wasn't a night we cared to find out whether clams (she'd never had any) counted as "shellfish".

    That's the only night I've ever pulled out a chinese take-out menu and passed it around for guests to choose their own damned dinner.

    I should add that Herve and I happily ate pasta with clam-sauce for the next three days running.

    As for canned clams, Ed? I know they have them in Barcelona (which can't be more than three hours from Montpelier). I've bought and used canned clams and eels there several times over the years. Presumably, they're available in Perpignan? Those folks all eat pretty-much the same thing, as you'll know.

    Quite aside from the topic of canned clams?....thank you for your recent, really insightful (educational, for me) segment you did on Howling Wolf for "Fresh Air".

    Herve said that I needed to invite you here, hand over my American Express card, direct you to, and let you reinvigorate my very-predictable CD collection.

    thanks as ever for the good work,

    David Terry

  4. Hey, David, I haven't spent any time at all in Perpignan (hoping to be able to remedy that before too long) and only a couple of hours in Barça, although I'm supposedly going there in September.

    I had one of those intolerant dinners once where it turned out that the problem was peanut allergy -- severe. Shellfish allergy is the basis of the now-banned shellfish toxin the CIA was experimenting with before they got shut down for it via some international treaty or other.

    Anyway, at my dinner, there was a fairly good pizzeria down the hill, so that's how we solved that one. And I had leftovers aplenty, too.

  5. Dear Ed,

    I couldn't, for the life of me, recall the Catalan term for clams this morning (in my defense, how often does anyone discuss clams?). It just came to me....

    If you find a Spanish grocery store (which can't be that hard in Montpelier) or find yourself browsing the Boqueria in Barcelona, just askfor/look for "Berberechos".

    These very small clams are commercially farmed in Galicia (Western Coast), and they're invariably canned...quite simply in their own juices, without salt or flavorings. they're very popular in Catalan tapas bars, where they're usually served, quite simply, in a dish with a few slices of lemon and a glass of toothpicks. They're a standard accompniment to a glass of vermouth.....which sounds a bit weird, Iknow. Herve's great-aunt used to serve them in a sort of vinaigrette of lemonjuice, parsley, salt, and pernod....which, of course, leaves you feeling oddly as though you were back at Gallatoire's, eating Oysters Rockefeller.

    In any case, "Berberechos" are quite common and not at all expensive. We were just back in Barcelona and, afterwards, Argeles (just above Perpignan; Herve's just inherited his great aunt's old house there). If I'd read this posting earlier, I'd have bought a sackful of clams (it's like buying sardines here in the USA) and mailed them to you from Argeles.

    As things went, all I brought back were jars of tiny eelings (which bascially look like worms and have, on various occasions, alarmed women who are going through my pantry shelves).

    Back I go to packing books, having spent all of last night doing nothing more productive than freaking out over the notion of closing up two houses here and moving everybody, everything, and everydog fifteen miles down the road into a single, much larger house.

    Level Best as Ever,

    David Terry


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