I didn’t taste a clam or mussel until I was twenty. Even now, I’ll only rarely choose to eat a bowl of shellfish when given another option. Clam pasta, though? That’s another story. Pasta alle Vongole is one of those mystical dishes where an alchemy so delicious occurs that a list of ingredients does little to account for its depth of flavor. Pasta with clams tastes like the perfect day of surfing—salty and rich, fresh and bright, entirely satisfying. I like to use two kinds of clams in this pasta: larger littlenecks, which have a deeper clammy flavor, and smaller Manilas or cherrystones, which are really fun to pluck out of the shell at the table. If you can’t find both kinds, don’t sweat it, just use 4 pounds of whichever variety you can find, and treat them all like littlenecks. [Ed. note: See below recipe for an illustrated walkthrough.]
Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil.
Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat and add a tablespoon of oil. Add the root ends of the onion, the parsley sprigs, and as many littlenecks as will fit in one layer, then pour in 3/4 cup wine.
Crank the heat up to high, cover the pan, and let clams steam until they open, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the cover and use tongs to transfer clams to a bowl as they open.
If there are any stubborn clams, tap them gently with your tongs to encourage them to open. Discard any clams that don’t open after 6 minutes of cooking. Add the remaining littlenecks to the pan and cook the same way with the remaining wine.
Strain the cooking liquid through a fine-mesh strainer and set aside. Once the clams are cool enough to handle, pluck them from their shells and chop coarsely. Set aside in a small bowl with just enough cooking liquid to cover. Discard the shells.
Rinse the pan, then set over medium heat. Add just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan, and add the diced onion and a pinch of salt. Cook until tender, stirring occasionally, about 12 minutes. It’s fine if the onion picks up color, but don’t let it burn; add a splash of water if you need to.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta until not quite al dente.
Add the garlic and 1/2 teaspoon pepper flakes to the onion and sizzle gently. Before the garlic has a chance to brown, add the Manila or cherrystone clams and crank up the heat to high. Add a healthy splash of the clam cooking liquid or wine and cover the pan.
As soon as the clams open, add the chopped littlenecks. Cook together for a couple minutes, then taste and adjust acid with lemon juice or more white wine as needed.
Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of cooking liquid, and immediately add to the pan with the clams. Let the noodles continue cooking until al dente in the clam liquid so that they can absorb all the briny goodness.
Taste and adjust for salt, spiciness, and acid. Pasta should be quite juicy—if it isn’t, add more spoonfuls of clam cooking liquid, wine, or pasta water. Add the butter and cheese and allow them to melt, then toss to coat the pasta. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley leaves and spoon into bowls.
Serve immediately with crusty bread for sopping up the sauce.
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(Illustration: Wendy MacNaughton)
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Recipe and illustration reprinted with permission from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. Illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton. Copyright 2017 © Simon & Schuster