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What Makes a Great Clam Sauce?


Varmint
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What started as a discussion of a mediocre representation of linguine with white clam sauce at a NYC restaurant led to a thread on the best dish in the city.

What I want to know is the best way to make the version at home. I've found that even when making this dish with fresh clams, I still need to add some clam juice to get the flavor I want. Is that just because I'm overly used to that salty jarred flavor or is that because it's just what the dish needs?

C'mon, help me out on this.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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Linguine or Spaghetti with white clam sauce is one of my all-time favorite dishes and one of the few recipes of my mother's that I have been able to reconstruct.

I prefer using at least three dozen little necks or two dozen cherrystone clams per pound of pasta. The key is to capture the juice from the clams for use in the sauce. Without the juice it isn't clam sauce! The rest of the recipe is pretty simple. I fry chopped garlic (plenty) in good quality olive oil, add parsley (plenty), the clams (whole if littleneck, chopped if cherrystone) and the juice and heat while the pasta is boiling. The pasta is finished in the sauce so as to absorb some of that great flavor. Cracked or crushed red pepper is optional depending on one's preference. I will sometimes add a little white wine too depending on the amount of clam juice that I have and my mood. :wink:

The devil is in some of the details. I have tried a variety of ways of opening the clams to get the most juice. Opening them directly works well with a good clam knife, but depending on one's technique precious juice can be lost. Other options include tossing the clams in the freezer first before opening them with a knife (If the clams freeze slightly, this affords the cleanest way of collecting the juice most efficiently) and heating them in a pan until they open (good for recalcitrant clams or for someone who has difficulty opening them otherwise.

Nothing can ruin a great clam sauce more than unexpected crunch or grit when eating it.I always strain the juice and clams to remove any shell pieces or grit. Nowadays, most clams are pre-purged and come with very little if any sand. Uncleaned parsley is another source for unexpected grit so that should be cleaned as well.

This is one pasta dish that I enjoy at least as much re-heated the next day.

Your tricks?

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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OH do I ever agree with that about the grit! and really wash that parsley!!!

I never add extra juice to mine and I actually just leave the clams in the shells anymore and just scrub them and add them to my sauce letting them open in there so the juice dumps right into it and I dont miss a drop!...I love the flavor, it is less work and more fun to eat with my fingers anyway

I never measure but my list for clam sauce is as follows

LOTS of good olive oil

Italian parsley

good pino grigio

lots of garlic

cream just a splash

kosher salt (just a touch)

cracked pepper

instead of crushed red pepper in mine I add one minced habanero (family secret)

and of course clams ..I have mostly used well cleaned Manilla clams living here on the West coast ...back east I used little necks

heat the oil ...toss the garlic ..parsley ..habanero and pepper in and sizzle for a minute ...then add the wine about a cup ...bring to a hard boil then add the clams cover for a min ...when they pop open add the cream toss gently and if needed the salt ..go lite

that is it ..this takes no time at all

Edited by hummingbirdkiss (log)
why am I always at the bottom and why is everything so high? 

why must there be so little me and so much sky?

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Every time I've made this dish with fresh clams only, I just don't end up with enough clam flavor. I could have 60 clams in the pot, steam them, save the resulting juice, reduce it, and it still doesn't taste right. Why oh why?

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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A recipe I've been loving is a little more complicated: Spaghettic w/ Cockles, Pancetta and Parsely in Erica deMane's Flavors of Southern Italy. Now, I agree that cockles are not as juicy as littlenecks, so I sub about 40 little necks per lb. She suggests steaming the clams first in white wine and reserving them while preparing the sauce base. I find this works well and gives great juice, though its a bit more complicated than she suggests because I then shell the clams (which she doesn't with cockles) and strain the juice. She then sautes a bit of chopped pancetta in 1/3 c evoo, adds sliced garlic, then simmers with some of clam liquour with zest and juice of a large lemon. A minute later, heat clams with remaining clam juice, S & P to taste. I also add a pinch of red pepper (not in recipe.) Serve with drizze of evoo and lots of chopped (and yes, well-rinsed!) parsley.

Although I have always adored the classic version of this dish, I like this even better and my family does the finger on the plate thing to get every last bit of sauce.

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Every time I've made this dish with fresh clams only, I just don't end up with enough clam flavor.  I could have 60 clams in the pot, steam them, save the resulting juice, reduce it, and it still doesn't taste right.  Why oh why?

Fresh clams are certainly essential. Are you adding enough garlic and parsley?

I don't leave them in the shells because i find too much juice staying in the shells and not mixing with the pasta. The mixing is essential IMO for the juice to absorb into the pasta as well as mixing with the garlic, parsley and whatever other ingredients. It also makes it harder to twirl the pasta! :laugh:

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Varmint, do you think it might help if you gave the pasta a turn in the sauce (in the pan) before serving?  So the sauce would cling more?  I like it that way.

I agree that this is a key step. I put the pasta in al dente and let it finish cooking in the pan with the sauce.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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I certainly finish cooking the pasta in the sauce. After cooking the clams, I remove them into a bowl (and generally remove the clams from the shells). I collect all that juice and return it to the pan. I've used lots of garlic and parsley (and sometimes basil). I'll reduce those juices. It's still not the super-flavorful taste I want.

Maybe I'm just not getting good clams (slthough we get them trucked in from the coast 3-4 times a week).

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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I certainly finish cooking the pasta in the sauce.  After cooking the clams, I remove them into a bowl (and generally remove the clams from the shells).  I collect all that juice and return it to the pan.  I've used lots of garlic and parsley (and sometimes basil).  I'll reduce those juices.  It's still not the super-flavorful taste I want.

Maybe I'm just not getting good clams (slthough we get them trucked in from the coast 3-4 times a week).

Perhaps you are overcooking the clams and juice? What kind of clams are you using and how much pasta are you using it with?

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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There's also something else that makes it "white" clam sauce, I think. In Italy, there is a preparation I've usually seen called "bianco di scoglio" which is made with seafood (clams in this case, but could be mussels, squid, shrimp, mixed seafood, etc.), parsley, garlic, a touch of crushed red pepper and a lot of extra virgin olive oil -- but that's not the same as the Italian-American "white clam sauce" which is usually, well... white somehow. I wonder if the familiar Italian-American version includes cheese?

The Italian version is somewhat less emphatically flavored than the Italian-American version. As Dean surmises, the familiar Italian-American restaurant version is usually spiked with extra clam juice or even chicken stock. It's also typically made with chopped chowder clams rather than littlenecks or cherrystones. I don't bother adding the extra juice or stock, but it wouldn't be unthinkable to melt in an anchovy fillet or two at the beginning if you want a stronger flavor.

Anyway, I find that I get better flavor, and a certain slight hint of iodine I appreciate, by using cockles rather than clams. And, in the Italian style, I don't bother taking them out of the shells. While the (dry!) pasta is cooking, I throw the cockles into a massively preheated pan with some olive oil and chopped garlic, toss in some dry white wine and slap on a lid. You can actually hear the cockle shells pop open. By the time the pasta is around 2 minutes away from being done, all the cockles have opened. I then add the pasta and a little bit of the pasta water to the pan and continue cooking until the pasta is almost perfect (it will continue cooking on the way to the table), then toss in a big pinch of crushed red pepper, a handfull of chopped parsley and a healthy slug of extra virgin olive oil off the heat. Done. For variations, I sometimes like to include pancetta or guanciale, crank up the red pepper a bit and cool the whole thing out with some chopped fresh mint.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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There's also something else that makes it "white" clam sauce, I think.  In Italy, there is a preparation I've usually seen called "bianco di scoglio" which is made with seafood (clams in this case, but could be mussels, squid, shrimp, mixed seafood, etc.), parsley, garlic, a touch of crushed red pepper and a lot of extra virgin olive oil -- but that's not the same as the Italian-American "white clam sauce" which is usually, well... white somehow.  I wonder if the familiar Italian-American version includes cheese?

Cheese? Absolutely not! :shock: Actually the way I described and the way I grew up with is similar to what you described. The only difference is the kind of clam used.

The Italian version is somewhat less emphatically flavored than the Italian-American version.  As Dean surmises, the familiar Italian-American restaurant version is usually spiked with extra clam juice or even chicken stock.  It's also typically made with chopped chowder clams rather than littlenecks or cherrystones.  I don't bother adding the extra juice or stock, but it wouldn't be unthinkable to melt in an anchovy fillet or two at the beginning if you want a stronger flavor.

Anyway, I find that I get better flavor, and a certain slight hint of iodine I appreciate, by using cockles rather than clams.  And, in the Italian style, I don't bother taking them out of the shells.  While the (dry!) pasta is cooking, I throw the cockles into a massively preheated pan with some oilve oil and chopped garlic, toss in some dry white wine and slap on a lid.  You can actually hear the cockle shells pop open.  By the time the pasta is around 2 minutes away from being done, all the cockles have opened.  I then add the pasta and a little bit of the pasta water until the pasta is just right, then toss in a big pinch of crushed red pepper, a handfull of chopped parsley and a healthy slug of extra virgin olive oil off the heat.  Done.  For variations, I sometimes like to include pancetta or guanciale, crank up the red pepper a bit and cool the whole thing out with some chopped fresh mint.

There you go with the pasta water again :raz::laugh:

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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I wonder if the familiar Italian-American version includes cheese?

Absolutely not! :shock:

I would be willing to bet that if you took a survey of Italian-American restaurants in America, or even on the Northeastern Seaboard, at least 75% of them are either incorporating grating cheese into the dish or offering grating cheese at the table to go with the dish. I'm not saying that "cheese with seafood" reflects my own preferences and practices, or that it reflects those of more recent Italian immigrant culture. But I do think it reflects the reality of most mainstream assimilated Italian-American cooking.

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The use of wine causes horror in some more (rather than less) Italian circles (Dean, your family must know all about this).

But then much genuine Italian food is very pure of flavour, as Sam says. I make pasta with porcini and I'm adding this herb and that shallot and a touch of the other and blah blah blah. Go to Parma and they'll serve you pasta with oil and porcini. Maybe a little chile. That's it. That's the flavour they're after.

Probably the trick is great great clams. However, if you would like another trick, Chiarello adds an anchovy or two to melt in the soffrito at the beginning. Sounds odd, but you barely taste it. I promise. It will make you happy.

"Gimme a pig's foot, and a bottle of beer..." Bessie Smith

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Yes, I could be overcooking the juice, but not the clams. I generally use littlenecks or cherrystones.

The other thing I may be doing is starting with too much liquid. Using a very hot pan as Sam suggests may be the ticket.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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Actually, and this might sound silly, but the trick might just be adjusting your expectations of what you're after.

"Gimme a pig's foot, and a bottle of beer..." Bessie Smith

Flickr Food

"111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321" Bruce Frigard 'Winesonoma' - RIP

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OOOh I love White Clam Sauce. I use fresh clams and just add them to the sauce in their shells.

I don't add extra clam juice either. I saute shallots and garlic in butter and make a roux, adding some white white and a little chicken broth. Season with a little cayenne pepper, and a little oregano. Salt and pepper. Add the clams and as soon as they are open, toss in some fresh chopped parsley, toss in the pasta and serve with fresh grated parmesan cheese.

Ann

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I'm no purist, obviously, but I do think that cheese violates the nature of the sauce by attenuating that iodine perfume we're all going for. And, though I suspect the typical American joints add tons of butter (which is not bad, IMO) I haven't often tasted cheese in NYC clam sauce.

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Dean, I wonder if your frustration is due to the fact that you may be trying to make a dish that has the intensity of the Italian-American version (made with canned clams and extra bottled clam juice or chicken stock) using Italian ingredients and techniques.

I'm going to suggest something radical: This is impossible. I don't think there's any way to get that intensity of flavor using nothing but fresh clams, garlic and herbs.

This has something to do with the migration of what we think of as "the main event" as Italian cooking migrated into Italian-American cooking. I have noticed (and have noted in these forums before) that, as certain dishes and styles of cooking were transformed by the Italian diaspora in America, what was originally thought of as a condiment or enhancement came to be regarded as the focal point of the dish. In the Italian aesthetic, the pasta itself is the most important part of the dish, and the sauce should never be so abundant or intense that it obscures the experience of tasting and eating the pasta. As a result, many Italian pasta dishes have a meager amount of sauce, and especially the seafood pasta dishes can be quite delicately flavored compared to their Italian-American counterparts. In the most common Italian-American aesthetic, on the other hand, the sauce is the most important part of the dish, and the pasta is normally little more than a vehicle swimming in sauce.

So, I'd suggest that there are three paths you can take:

First, you can just do it the Italian-American way and use extra clam juice.

Second, you can adjust your expectations to something lighter and more pasta-centric, and do it the Italian way.

Third, you can make adjustments to try to get the Italian-American flavor using modified techniques. For example, you could get some chowder clams and puree them to ramp up the clam flavor. You could just cook the dish with a ton more clams and reduce the liquid. You could melt in an anchovy. Of these methods, only the last one strikes me as "Italian."

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I wonder if the familiar Italian-American version includes cheese?

Absolutely not! :shock:

I would be willing to bet that if you took a survey of Italian-American restaurants in America, or even on the Northeastern Seaboard, at least 75% of them are either incorporating grating cheese into the dish or offering grating cheese at the table to go with the dish. I'm not saying that "cheese with seafood" reflects my own preferences and practices, or that it reflects those of more recent Italian immigrant culture. But I do think it reflects the reality of most mainstream assimilated Italian-American cooking.

I agree that cheese is often used, and also I've tasted white clam sauces that seemed to be thickened and given a richer color with things like heavy cream, butter, eggs and even what was probably canned clam chowder. These sauces can actually be pretty good if made with mild proportions of such ingredients.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'm no purist, obviously, but I do think that cheese violates the nature of the sauce by attenuating that iodine perfume we're all going for.  And, though I suspect the typical American joints add tons of butter (which is not bad, IMO) I haven't often tasted cheese in NYC clam sauce.

Greenwich, up until I had this sauce with the parmesan, I would have totally agreed with you. I've never liked cheese on pasta dishes that contained seafood. But the exception for me is this sauce. Somehow the fresh parmesan works. At least it does for me.

Ann

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Also, I forgot to mention pureed clams as a thickening ingredient. I saw this done in one restaurant kitchen: a bunch of cheap clams in the food processor. (It was also the Ducasse/Psaltis method for thickening clam chowder at Mix in New York, though they used razor clams.)

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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What started as a discussion of a mediocre representation of linguine with white clam sauce at a NYC restaurant led to a thread on the best dish in the city.

What I want to know is the best way to make the version at home.  I've found that even when making this dish with fresh clams, I still need to add some clam juice to get the flavor I want.  Is that just because I'm overly used to that salty jarred flavor or is that because it's just what the dish needs?

C'mon, help me out on this.

I hear ya on this! I generally prepare white clam sauce using the recipe in Marcella Hazan's "Classic Italian Cookbook" as a "guide" but I add more shallot or yellow onion and garlic, additional clam juice and lots of chopped fresh Italian parsley. It never tastes clammy enough without additional juice nor "bright" enough without the fresh parsley.

I hate any grit at all in my clams so I am fairly meticulous about scrubbing them. Once steamed open with white wine I remove them from the shells and place them in a small bowl with enough bottled clam juice to cover and strain the remaining clam nectar and white wine from the steaming pan through a fine sieve lined with paper towel into the bowl. I pull the clams from the steaming pan just as soon as they open so that they are slightly undercooked as they will go back on the heat right before serving. Rinse out steaming pan to get rid of any residual grit and saute the shallot in lots of olive oil, add the garlic and saute until translucent. Add crushed red pepper flakes then some white wine and reduce. Add half to 2/3rds of the juice holding the clams after straining yet again and reduce. When ready to serve I do add some butter and freshly grated parmesan (even Marcella admits this is heretical but it tastes better this way) and put the clams back in the pan to warm. Add the cooked pasta to the pan and let absorb some of the sauce for a minute or two over low heat.

It works for me!

Kate

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