We eat a lot of pasta in our house. Luckily, it’s so versatile that the options are truly endless. With all the fresh and dried varieties available in stores these days, you could probably combine a different type of pasta with a different sauce every day for years and never get bored.
But while I cook pasta quite frequently, it’s rare that I get to incorporate my favorite ingredients: fresh, locally caught seafood. The only exception is this spaghetti dish, topped with fresh clams and mussels—even in landlocked Umbria, it’s usually possible to find both bivalves at the market.
Many folks get nervous about buying fresh clams and mussels, since they have a reputation for requiring a lot cleaning before use. It’s true that they need a little extra care, but once you learn the basics of choosing, storing, and preparing them, the process becomes significantly less intimidating.
Like all fresh seafood, mussels and clams should smell of the ocean—like salt and seaweed, but not at all fishy. The shells should be tightly closed, with no chips or cracks. If you spot one that’s partly opened, give it a tap; if it doesn’t close immediately, it should be discarded. Similarly, any clams or mussels that remain tightly sealed after the recommended cooking or steaming period should never be forced open and eaten.
Once you get your clams and mussels home, immediately unwrap them and store them in a dry bowl in the refrigerator until needed. Though they can keep in the fridge for up to two days, you should generally cook shellfish the same day that you buy it.
When preparing your clams and mussels for this recipe, remove any dirt, sand, or seaweed clinging to the shells by scrubbing them with a firm brush under cool running water. Then, about 20 minutes before cooking, soak them in fresh, cool water with two tablespoons of cornmeal.
This will help purge any sand remaining within. Finally, if your mussels still have seaweed, also called a beard, use a towel to gently pull it off the shell just before cooking.
In this particular recipe, I used cherry tomatoes to add flavor, but if fresh, ripe tomatoes are unavailable or out of season, you can substitute chopped canned tomatoes, instead. I would use one (14-ounce) can of chopped tomatoes for a recipe this size.
I prefer a long pasta shape for this type of sauce, like spaghetti, bucatini, stringozzi (an Umbrian square shaped long pasta), or even a fresh egg pasta such as fettuccine or linguine.
Once your clams and mussels are cooked, discard any that remain tightly sealed: they are not safe to eat.
- 4 Tablespoons Olive Oil
- 3 Medium Cloves of Garlic, Thinly Sliced
- 1/4 Cup Dry White Wine
- 1 Pound Fresh Mussels, Scrubbed
- 1 Pound Small Clams, Scrubbed
- 1 Pound Spaghetti or Long Pasta of Choice (See Notes Above)
- 2 Cups Halved Ripe Cherry Tomatoes (See Notes Above)
- 1/2 Teaspoon Red Chili Flakes
- Kosher Salt and Black Pepper to Taste
- 1/4 Cup Chopped Fresh Parsley Leaves
- In a large, heavy saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat until lightly smoking.
- Add garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute.
- Add the wine and bring to a boil.
- Add the clams and mussels, cover, and cook, shaking the pan often until they open.
- Transfer the shells to a bowl; once cool, remove the meat from the shells, leaving about a quarter of clams and mussels in their shells to garnish the bowls for serving.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta.
- Once boiling, cook the pasta according to the package instructions until it is "al dente."
- While the pasta is cooking, add the tomatoes and chili flakes to the seafood pot and cook over medium high heat, stirring often until the tomatoes begin to break down, 5 to 6 minutes.
- Season with salt and pepper, and stir in the parsley.
- Return the clams and mussels to the pot and keep warm.
- Drain the pasta, then return it to the pot.
- Add the seafood sauce and cook for a minute or two over high heat, stirring constantly until it is piping hot.
- Serve immediately in individual bowls, with the clams and mussels still in their shells on top as a garnish.