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ulterior epicure

Clams and cheese

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It's true in my experience, although as with all things, I am sure there may be some exceptions.


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A friend told me that clams are never served with cheese in traditional Italian cuisine.  Is this true?

Yes, it's true.

There was a flurry of discussion on a NY Times blog not long ago about the Italian fish-cheese prohibition. The author went so far as to call it a "superstition," which is hardly fair. The two are considered not to taste good together, and particularly the cheese is considered to drown out the delicate but real flavor of the seafood. Cucina creativa will occasionally sneak some cheese in, but in traditional cooking, no cheese with seafood.

I vaguely remember baked clams with a lot of bread crumbs from Italian-American restaurants long ago, and these may have had a sprinkling of grated cheese, but that would not help anybody's case for cheese.

Of course, you mention traditional Italian cooking, and there are so many traditions. Certainly in Rome and Lazio, which is what I know best, the ban is strong.


Maureen B. Fant
www.maureenbfant.com

www.elifanttours.com

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In Italian-American restaurants, I'd say that it's somewhat common to serve clams with grating cheese. The Italian-American staple, linguine with white clam sauce, almost always features plenty of grated cheese.


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There's a Sardinian recipe for pasta with clams and cheese. But that's the only time I've seen the two together.

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You'll find a few "stuffed clam" type recipes here and there that have pecorino in the stuffing. But for most pasta recipes that have shellfish, you won't have grating chesses as pointed out above, with parmigiano in particular being a real no-no.

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This is the kind of question that makes you wish Lidia was going to drop by later for a glass of wine so you could ask her. She pretty much puts herself in the camp of those with Italian-American cooking roots, no? But she would also know exactly where in Italy they combine cheese and fish--if they ever do.

I can think of no people more likely to pair cheese with seafood than Americans. We seem to like cheese on everything: goopy, stringy, flaky, salty, every which way. And best of all it comes straight out of the Kraft canister with the nice big holes and you don't have to worry about breaking a nail on the grater. (Okay, I know some folks are nostalgic about that delivery system, but not me.) I am guessing that enough Americans, exuberant over getting their first neighborhood Italian restaurant and used to shaking cheese on their meatballs & spaghetti, didn't hesitate to put it on every entree. What waiter would suggest otherwise? The kids are having fun with it; hey it's like eating in a snow globe! And so...linguini with clams got a fair shake too.

What's not to like? Well, to me the combo of cheese and seafood just seems generally icky. My one exception is the southern favorite of cheesy grits and shrimp. As long as the grits aren't overly cheesy--and we're not talkin' pecorino here), and there's a spicy red salsa to go with, it kinda works for me.

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In Italian-American restaurants, I'd say that it's somewhat common to serve clams with grating cheese.  The Italian-American staple, linguine with white clam sauce, almost always features plenty of grated cheese.

Never in my family or in my experience in an Italian-American restaurant run by Italians has cheese ever been part of this dish or offered without having been asked for. This is a dish that I consider a standard and one on which I will sometimes base my opinion of an Italian-American or Italian restaurant. Generally, if it is on the menu I will order it. It is also perhaps the best traditional dish that I make and the dish that I make best most consistently.

I'm not saying that it can't be good when made with cheese. I have seen it and had it in American-Italian restaurants served that way. One place in Saratoga, Wheatfields served a dish like this that was pretty good.


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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In Italian-American restaurants, I'd say that it's somewhat common to serve clams with grating cheese.  The Italian-American staple, linguine with white clam sauce, almost always features plenty of grated cheese.

Not to mention the New Haven classic: clam pizza. Had a few slices tonight, in fact. Admittedly clams are a lot less subtle than say a nicely sauteed bit of cod.

FWIW, the McDonald's Filet o' fich pairs something resembling fish with something resembling cheese to fine effect.

If anyone wants to run with this: I'm having a hard time picturing cheese with fish in any cuisine, except

maybe Coquilles St. Jacques (again with the traife!).


I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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A friend told me that clams are never served with cheese in traditional Italian cuisine.  Is this true?

Yes, it's true. Traditional Italian cooking does not combine seafood and cheese ... except ... it happens! I've been making linguine with clam sauce following the Marcella Hazan method for years (modified of course :wink: ) with a sprinkling of parmesan and butter. In her "The Classic Italian Cookbook" for the white clam sauce recipe she writes "This is a tomato-less sauce that includes two ingredients rarely used in Italian clam sauces: butter and cheese. But this departure from tradition is justified and successful because it adds smoothness and delicacy to the sauce." I don't know if she has repented this statement but I find the inclusion of a smidgeon of butter and parmesan essential to my favorite version of this dish. I am an Italian American whose relatives came from Piemonte. Being landlocked, anything with anything seafood but anchovies and salt cod is beyond my inherited (Piemontese) experience but I have spent a few years in most regions of Italy and can't say that this taste profile is something I've encountered much. It is still my go-to vongole bianco version.

Kate

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Clam milkshake anyone?


"There's nothing like a pork belly to steady the nerves."

Fergus Henderson

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If you do an Epicurious search on fish cheese, you get 122 recipes. Of course, a lot of them involve some form of smoked fish with cream cheese which is kind of a different story, but there are quite a few that involve other types of fish and cheese.


Jan

Seattle, WA

"But there's tacos, Randy. You know how I feel about tacos. It's the only food shaped like a smile....A beef smile."

--Earl (Jason Lee), from "My Name is Earl", Episode: South of the Border Part Uno, Season 2

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Just remembered another exception. In Rome, Da Franco ar Vicoletto (in the San Lorenzo neighborhood) has a seafood lasagna, with cheese and shellfish:

gallery_7432_5075_20303.jpg

The restaurant calls itself "Piccolo Molise", but I don't think that this is especially characteristic of the region. Could be wrong, though.

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The New York Times recently had a story, titled "Just Grate," debunking the "no cheese with seafood" claim.

The author, Robert Trachtenberg, found many exceptions to this supposed rule:

A call to da Fiore in Venice yielded a pennette with sea scallops, broccoli florets and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. And on and on it went in recipes both historic and contemporary: vermicelli alla Siciliana, crostata alle acciughe, not to mention dozens of seafood risottos finished off with cheese.

And Katie, he spoke to Lidia too.


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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A friend told me that clams are never served with cheese in traditional Italian cuisine.  Is this true?

Yes, it's true. Traditional Italian cooking does not combine seafood and cheese ... except ... it happens! I've been making linguine with clam sauce following the Marcella Hazan method for years (modified of course :wink: ) with a sprinkling of parmesan and butter. In her "The Classic Italian Cookbook" for the white clam sauce recipe she writes "This is a tomato-less sauce that includes two ingredients rarely used in Italian clam sauces: butter and cheese. But this departure from tradition is justified and successful because it adds smoothness and delicacy to the sauce." I don't know if she has repented this statement but I find the inclusion of a smidgeon of butter and parmesan essential to my favorite version of this dish. I am an Italian American whose relatives came from Piemonte. Being landlocked, anything with anything seafood but anchovies and salt cod is beyond my inherited (Piemontese) experience but I have spent a few years in most regions of Italy and can't say that this taste profile is something I've encountered much. It is still my go-to vongole bianco version.

Kate

Marcella Hazan's recipes are very Emilia-Romagna biased, so there is a natural tendency to add a bit of parmigiana for that characteristic creaminess.

There are always exceptions to the rules, I thought that NYTimes article that Fat Guy mentions was very well researched and written. All rules should be broken from time to time, secondo me.

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Oh yea. For sure there are exceptions. As Nancy Harmon Jenkins says in the article, "One of the great things about Italy is they love making rules. And they obey very few."

As a general rule of thumb you'll find that Italians don't serve grating cheese with seafood, or really with anything deemed to be so delicate that it would be "overwhelmed by the strong flavor of the cheese" (this often includes things liks fresh porcini). But, of course, one will be able to find examples here and there including a touch of cheese (although these are often either very mild grating cheeses or not grating cheeses at all). In this way, it's a bit like the rule of thumb saying that seafood goes with olive oil and that neither one goes with fresh pasta. And yet, in certain regions, you can find seafood with fresh pasta in a sauce incorporating either olive oil or butter.

None of the foregoing has much to say about the general advisability of these rules of thumb. As a general practice, I do think it makes sense to stay away from using grating cheese with most seafood, and as a general practice I think it makes sense to serve seafood with dry pasta and olive oil. As for the original question as to clams: Personally I don't think that cheese of any kind would make a very harmonious combination with clams or mussels Scallops, on the other hand...


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If you do an Epicurious search on fish cheese, you get 122 recipes. Of course, a lot of them involve some form of smoked fish with cream cheese which is kind of a different story, but there are quite a few that involve other types of fish and cheese.

Yes, but how many of those ingredients are Italian? I don't think anyone is suggesting that seafood and cheese have never been served together or don't get used together in many cultures. These answers seem to indicate that even the Italian American culture may have a different approach to seafood and cheese.

As the friend who said this to Ulterior Epicure, I was responding his surprise that a clam pizza at Franny's had no cheese. Given that my favorite local Italian joint refuses to give you parmesan on seafood even if you ask, I said that I thought there was an Italian prohibition against it. This may be a regional preference, but there is certainly a strong response in some places in Italy and serving Italian food in America.

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There are a number of seafood-and-cheese dishes that I love, such as lobster Thermidor (France) and oysters Rockefeller (New Orleans). There are also various dairy-based seafood recipes that I think can be excellent, such as clam chowder and lobster bisque. All of these dishes operate against what I see as the basic Italian culinary aesthetic, which would say that in all cases the dairy overwhelms the seafood. But that's just one culinary aesthetic. It's also the case that plenty of serious gourmets think these dishes are absolutely delicious. No, you don't get a pure clam taste experience when you eat clam chowder, but the clams contribute to the wonderful overall flavor of the dish.


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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Well, I think that's exactly the point. It's one culinary outlook among many possibilities. This particular question has to do with cheese (by which is normally meant a sharp, strongly flavored grating cheese) and seafood in the Italian tradition. More to the point, when one considers the contexts in which one might possibly have grating cheese with seafood in the Italian tradition, we're talking about seafood pasta (no one is suggesting grating pecorino over a grilled branzino). For me, grating cheese just doesn't make much sense in this context. And also, as Steven points out, the Italian tradition places a high value on pure, essential, unadulterated flavors, especially when it comes to seafood.

That said, I've got no difficulties with a little cheese or dairy in other contexts. Clearly the French tradition, for example, has no trouble with cheese or dairy of any kind with seafood. And I like an oyster pan roast, coquilles st. jacques or clam chowder as much as the next guy.


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I think it's safe to say that, while cheese/seafood is not used in most Italian traditions, Italians don't find the combination inherently disgusting, just not very effective as a rule. Creative cooks feel free to push the boundaries.

The original question was about clams, which may be a special case in that they are often accompanied by garlic. Certainly spaghetti alle vongole in Rome contains lots of garlic, and most people would consider parmigiano on that not just untraditional but unappetizing.

It bears noting that pecorino romano can go places barred to parmigiano. Anchovies are often paired with pecorino, even fresh anchovies.

I looked in Marcella's Classic Italian Cooking and More Classic Italian Cooking (her first two) but found only red clam sauce, with garlic and without cheese. Marcella often sneaks butter in where it doesn’t officially belong, and actually many cooks sneak butter into the spaghetti alle vongole to help make the sauce creamier, and some swear by a sprinkling of flour (I think a pasta like Latini takes the place of both additions). I'm wondering whether Marcella's addition of cheese might be to help the texture of the sauce rather than to add a cheesy taste. While it's true she's from Emilia-Romagna, she's specifically from Cesenatico, in Romagna, a serious fish town right on the Adriatic and presumably does right by her seafood.


Maureen B. Fant
www.maureenbfant.com

www.elifanttours.com

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I've always been told by Italian chef never to use sharp cheeses with seafood, however.........Cheese with a little more subtley can do wonders with seafood. Mascarpone with Bisques, smoked salmon and cream cheese (however not Italian they do eat it often in the north), stracchino or pizza with Tuna or folded into risotto with Halibut. The most interesting cheese and seafood combination I have tried has been watermelon, Ricotta Salata, and scallops. If you haven't tried it check it out.

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I've always been told by Italian chef never to use sharp cheeses with seafood, however.........Cheese with a little more subtley can do wonders with seafood. Mascarpone with Bisques, smoked salmon and cream cheese (however not Italian they do eat it often in the north), stracchino or pizza with Tuna or folded into risotto with Halibut. The most interesting cheese and seafood combination I have tried has been watermelon, Ricotta Salata, and scallops. If you haven't tried it check it out.

Ciao and welcome to eGullet!

That's quite a teaser: watermelon, ricotta salata and scallops. come on, tell us a little more...how was everything prepared, assembled? Inquiring minds!

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In what is for me the best Italian restaurant in London, Chef Maurizio Morelli used to have monkfish with mozzarella on the menu. To be fair, though, it was one of my least favourite dishes...

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