One of the most iconic Italian pasta dishes ever, spaghetti con le vongole is a firm favourite of our whole family — which is saying something as my eldest daughter is a dreadfully picky eater! Anyone who has to cook for a picky eater will appreciate that feeling of immense satisfaction (and perhaps relief) at being able to cook just one thing that everyone can enjoy together — well, for us, it’s this.
And it just happens to also be a very quick, very easy, healthy and sustainable dish to make (wins all around), and although you should take care to rinse and pick through the clams, as well as purge them if necessary (all of which can be done ahead of time), the actual cooking time is a cinch, making this also a good one for entertaining as you don’t have to slave over a stove all evening. We recently made this — and it was the star of the show — for a Sunday Suppers dinner in the hills of Florence at the breathtaking Settignano Tuscany Homes (some photos at the end of this post).
Here below I’ve put my guide to everything you should know about clams and preparing them, whether for spaghetti or a seafood stew or anything else (panzanella with clams? Why not?). You can also find a lot of this information in my second cookbook, Acquacotta.
What clams to use
While the native vongole veraci (literally meaning “true” vongole, ruditapes decussatus or venerupis decussata, otherwise known as Carpet shells) are the classic Mediterranean clam for this pasta dish, the name is a bit of an oxymoron these days as even in Italy the default clam has — thanks to its popularity — been replaced with its Pacific Ocean relative venerupis philippinarum (vongole filipine or Manila clam in English), introduced to and farmed in the Adriatic to satisfy the hunger for clams (the above photo shows these, note — they are never labelled as vongole filipine but as vongole veraci as in Italy sellers do not have to distinguish between these two clams).
Often sold next to the “vongole veraci” are lupini — smaller, grey clams with tasty meat, these are more likely to be wild than farmed and because they are found in the open sea, they tend to be quite salty! You will not need to use salt for this recipe anyway but you may even want to pay attention to how much salt you add to the pasta cooking water. The photograph of the final pasta dish is made with lupini and you can see them in the blue net below.
Whenever we come across them, telline (donax trunculus) are a really special treat. Also known as arselle in Tuscany or wedge clams in English, they are flat, small bivalves with a white to grey to lavender hue. Telline are harder to find and have a short season (May-September, usually easier to find outside of the hottest months of July and August) but are incredibly tasty. Marco often recounts stories of his father during their family holidays on the Tuscan coast wandering off to rake through the sand for hours and coming home with buckets full of arselle. Unfortunately, they’re not as easy to find anymore and there are many restrictions these days on fishing them, so when you do happen to find them at the market or the fishmongers, this is reflected in their price.
When we lived on Monte Argentario in southern Tuscany, you could find wedge clams along the shallow, fine, sandy beach of Feniglia (the same beach where the exiled painter Caravaggio died in 1610) and we loved to sit at a trattoria like Il Braccio, right on the beach, with sandy feet and the sea breeze in our hair and a plate of spaghetti with as-local-as-you-can-get clams and a glass of wine — pretty much the perfect meal.
You can really use any clam you like with this recipe, the procedure is pretty much the same. In Australia, you could even use pipis which are probably the closest thing to telline.
How to prepare clams
Clams are sold live and need to be prepared with care so that you are eating only the freshest clams and not grinding any sand between your teeth. To prepare clams before cooking, it’s traditional in Italian kitchens to purge them of any sand that might be inside the tightly shut shells – there’s nothing worse than biting into on sand while eating your pasta. The idea is to filter the sand out by soaking them in water. Everyone has different advice on how to do this — much of it, filtered down through family lore and a persistence of old wives tales.
I take the advice of lifelong clamming expert Hank Shaw, American journalist, forager and author of Hunt, Gather, Cook and the blog, Honest Food, both of which offer more in-depth advice on the subject.
The first thing to know is that most commercially available clams and mussels have already been filtered. If you’ve bought your clams in a supermarket or they are vacuum packed, they are likely to be ready to go – just follow step 1 below for weeding out any bad ones and step 5 in case there are any closed dead ones hoarding a shell-full of sand – trust me on this one, it sounds tedious but it could be the most important step! If you have even one of these shells (which although look closed, when tapped hard enough will break open easily), open in your pan while tossing, your entire dish will be ruined. If you’re sourcing them from a fishmonger and you’re not sure, just ask if they have already been purged.
If you need to purge the clams yourself, the best procedure is this:
- Rinse clams quickly under water, weed out any with crushed shells or that are open and don’t move when touched or squeezed. Put the clams in a large non-reactive bowl (such as glass or ceramic) or, even better, a large shallow dish (such as a casserole) which will hold the clams in one layer allowing them to open more easily.
- Cover the clams in salt water by 2-3cm. Actual seawater (filtered to remove any sand) is best, of course, but otherwise use sea salt (not regular table salt) and water to a salinity of about 3.5% (or 35 grams to every litre of water). Fresh water will kill the clams. Try not to shock them to death by changing their temperature too rapidly so keep them somewhere relatively close to their current temperature. If they have been stored chilled (for example at the fishmongers), then you can use cool water and keep them chilled in the fridge, otherwise set them somewhere like in a cool corner of the room.
- Purge for at least 1 hour. I find this time sufficient for clams bought from the fishmonger. If you leave them for significantly longer than that, check on them from time to time and change the water so they don’t die from loss of oxygen. Tapping or agitating them, they should close (perhaps slowly, but they should eventually completely close). The last thing you want is to forget about them all day and come back to a bowl of dead clams.
- Remove the clams with a perforated spoon or with hands to a colander (don’t tip the water out directly into the colander as you’ll end up pouring any purged sand back over them).
- You’ll see Italian fishmongers tapping, or bouncing, their clams on the counter to weed out any dead ones that look like they are closed – it’s useful to do this, as tedious as it might sound (if you’ve got little ones running around, they might like to help). With a plastic chopping board underneath, tap or bounce the clams one by one. Live ones will stay tightly shut. If there is a dead one in there, it will open when you do this – and will likely be full of sand that you’ve just saved from getting into your sauce. Now you’re ready to cook them.
Spaghetti con le vongole
In Italy, mussels and clams are often sold in plastic nets weighing either 500 grams or 1 kilogram, so the recipe here is for cooking 1 kilogram of clams. It would easily feed 6 but if you can buy by the weight, you can pare this back to about 750 grams of clams and 320 grams pasta for 4 serves. Otherwise if you only need a smaller portion, you can also prepare the vongole as follows then save the remaining sauce and clams — Marco likes to pull the meat out of the clams first — and you can freeze this sauce, ready to defrost, reheat and toss through spaghetti in an instant. This is based on my recipe for spaghetti with wedge clams from Acquacotta, my second cookbook.
- 1 kilogram clams
- 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 250 ml dry white wine
- 500 grams dried spaghetti
- handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Rinse clams quickly under water, weed out any with crushed shells (a tiny chip or crack are usually fine) or that are open and don’t move when touched or squeezed (rule of thumb: if they are open before cooking, they’re dead. If they don’t open after cooking, they’re dead. Throw them away). Purge the clams, if necessary, for at least 1 hour (see how and when to purge clams, above). And regardless of whether or not you’re purging, do not skimp on step 5.
Put a large pot of water on to boil for the spaghetti.
In a wide skillet over medium heat, place 2 tablespoons olive oil and the garlic. Let sizzle for 1 minute until pale golden, then add the clams. Toss briefly to coat the clams, then add the white wine. Turn up heat to high then cover and cook, giving a good shake here and there, for 1 minute and a half longer, or until all the clams have opened. Remove from heat and set aside. Note that you won’t need any extra salt here, but you can add ground pepper or chilli to taste.
When the water is boiling, add salt (1 teaspoon for every litre of water is ideal), then the spaghetti and cook until al dente (see the recommended time on the package). Drain, reserving about 60 ml of the cooking water if needed. You’ll need a recipient large enough to toss everything together – use the pot that the pasta was cooked in if the skillet is too small to hold everything. Toss the spaghetti with the remaining olive oil, parsley, the clams and all their juice. If the pasta needs any extra liquid to keep it all juicy (and this should be juicy!), add the reserved cooking water and perhaps another glug of oil and toss it all together vigorously to create a creamy emulsion. Serve immediately with empty bowls on the table for the discarded shells.
A tip: You can make a really creamy liquid the way Marco loves to do it by draining the liquid from the clams and placing this liquid in a skillet. Then take the pasta out a couple of minutes before it’s ready and finish cooking them in the simmering clam liquid. In this shallow liquid, the starch in the pasta will come out, helping create a creamy sauce. I like to still have a small cup nearby with some of the pasta cooking water just to top up when necessary — the sauce is what makes this dish. Marco also likes to shell all the clams when he makes this (I have a feeling it’s so he can eat it quicker, without having to fiddle with shells), but I love seeing the shells eat in this dish — and if you ask me, you eat with your eyes as well, you know — and I don’t mind pulling the meat out of the shells as I eat. As a result, we have come to a compromise. We usually remove half the shells and leave the other half in their shells.