I am honestly pretty scared of cooking seafood. Unlike chicken or meat that has a built-in color indicator, seafood is pretty difficult to cook correctly if you are unpracticed. Enter me! I have tried my hand at easier fish like tilapia and gotten pretty comfortable with it, but I still live by my meat thermometer. 165⁰F remains the magic number.
Recently, I decided to venture out into the world of seafood considering I’m no longer smack-dab in the middle of the country. Fresh fish isn’t so “fishy” anymore. I’ve got to take advantage of this somehow, right? And then it hit me. Maybe I don’t have to pick something that’s impossible. I can pick something that actually does have a built-in indicator. Something as foolproof as that little red button on your Thanksgiving turkey (psst…you should still use your meat thermometer for the stuffing).
Clams! Clams, you guys. You automatically know they’re done cooking when they pop open! And simply throw away the ones that never do open. It’s genius! Super easy and a really great way to impress that special someone for a certain special day of the year that’s coming up…
So how does this work? Why do clams pop open when you cook them? Well, all bivalves (think scallops, mussels, clams, oysters) have muscles that keep their shells closed. These are called adductor muscles. You can actually see these babies in action. If you ever see a partially open bivalve mollusk, tap it. The shells should close back up. (If that doesn’t happen, do not buy those!) When you heat those little guys under a high temperature, they die and their adductor muscles permanently relax. That’s what you see when the shells suddenly pop open during cooking! Pretty cool.
Want another fun fact for this weekend’s cocktail party? Believe it or not, winter is the best season to buy clams! They taste the best because the colder temperatures discourage the clams from pumping so much sand and mud. Freezing cold water = cleaner tasting clams!
I used littleneck clams in this recipe because they’re pretty small and they have a slightly sweet flavor. They’re also not at all rubbery because they’re so small. I know we’ve all tasted our own share of rubbery clams! Honestly this recipe is insanely easy, but it looks so freaking impressive. I wasn’t kidding when I said you should make this for Valentine’s Day! Or any occasion actually. I’m making this pretty hard for you to say no to, right?
Clam Pasta with Parsley and Chili
Adapted from Angela Hartnett’s Cucina
14 ounces dried spaghetti (about one big fist-full of pasta)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon chili powder
500 g small clams (about 20 clams)
Splash white wine
2 tablespoons finely chopped flatleaf parsley
Lots of salt and freshly ground black pepper
Optional: red pepper flakes
- Scrub the clams in cold water. Take a vegetable-scrubbing brush and spend some time with each one really making sure that no sand or dirt remains on the shells. After each clam is cleaned, place it on a towel to briefly dry while you clean the rest.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil for the spaghetti. If you want a little extra flavor, use chicken stock/broth instead of water.
- Cook the pasta until al dente. Keep an eye on this as you continue with the recipe. Turn the heat off when it becomes the right texture. Drain to stop the cooking process.
- Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large pan with raised edges (at least 2 inches deep). Add the garlic when hot and cook for several minutes (about 5) to soften the garlic. Do not brown the garlic.
- Add the chili powder and swirl to combine. Add a big glug of white wine to the pan and swirl again to combine. Increase the heat to high. Add the clams (carefully) to the pan. We don’t want to chip any of the shells here.
- Cover the pan and cook on high heat. This part is easiest if you have a lid that is clear so you can watch the clams. Cook the clams until they open. This will probably take about 3-6 minutes depending on your clams. If you have one or two clams that don’t open, and it’s been at least 30 seconds since all of the other clams have opened, discard them.
- When the clams have “popped,” remove from the heat. Add the drained spaghetti to the pan along with a pretty healthy amount of both salt and pepper (to taste) and the parsley. Stir to combine as best as you can with some tongs. If it looks really dry, add a drizzle of good olive oil.
- Serve immediately with a plate to discard the clam shells and a pinch of red pepper flakes if you wish.
**Note on purchasing clams: Clams (and almost all seafood actually) should not smell like much of anything! If you smell something innately gross and fishy, walk away. Ditto for a bunch of open clams that don’t close. That means they’re dead. And you want live clams here people. If you keep your clams in the fridge, they should keep for about a week at most. It’s best to rest the bag on some ice to give them some water, but do not submerge them.