People ask me frequently for suggestions as to what they should keep in the pantry (both dry and refrigerated) on a regular basis. It’s a question I love because I’ll do almost anything to keep people away from resorting to processed foods. The best answer I’ve come up with is a question: what sorts of foods are their old reliables for quick dinners on the fly, or for a night when they can’t possibly face anything other than fast, or when aching for comfort food.
For me, it often comes down to pasta of some sort. I came home from Wednesday’s food show with three varieties from one of my all-time favorite producers whose foods I was fortunate to represent at the show, Roland (American Roland, specifically). It’s a cinch to work their booth because I love their products to a one. At the end of the day, samples that have not been given away to prospective users (chefs and cooks primarily), are up for grabs, so I grabbed a bag each of Gomitoni, Trine, and Rigatoni, along with a couple of lovely olive oils.
I’m not sure I’ve ever needed a body-and-soul-nourishing pasta dinner more than at the end of what has been a week of you-know-what on wheels. Let me be clear: it’s been a wonderful week in every possible respect, just an extremely full one. And there’s been lots of standing on lots of concrete. My very tired brain and body are crying for comfort.
Pasta with Clam Sauce is my very favorite no-thought-required dinner. I was weaned on it. My father was the one who always made it, though why he and not my mother, I don’t recall. Any night that he made dinner, and this one in particular, had a tinge of specialness to it. And it was always known as Linguine with Clam Sauce. I don’t believe the word pasta was even a part of the vernacular of 1950s New Jersey. Linguine was for clam sauce, “spaghetti” meant the noodle with a ground beef sauce, lasagna was lasagna, and elbow macaroni went into and cheese or, in summer, macaroni salad with a mayonnaise-based dressing. When we were very young, our father would break the linguine into small sections for us, as we were a few years away from mastering the technique of the twirl. I may not have experienced the word pasta, but I knew what al dente meant when I was around five.
As for the sauce, the ritual of its preparation was always the same, which I’m sure has as much to do with its comfort as food as with memory. When I grew tall enough that I was above eye-level to the stove, it was a thrill and a privilege to be allowed to drain the clam juice from the cans into the frying pan (the word skillet kept pasta company out in the linguistic hinterlands). Recently, as my father’s health began to fail along with his mental status, and fail rapidly at that, he would go through phases when he would simply choose not to go to the dining room for dinner. There didn’t appear to be any logic as to why; he simply wouldn’t go to dinner for several nights in a row. It wasn’t because of the food, which was excellent; my sister and I, in fact, selected the community to which he moved on the basis of the excellence of the food and menu choices. In retrospect, I imagine it probably came down to a simple issue of control (yeah, there’s a simple issue), as did many issues throughout his life. But that’s another story for another time.
So periodically I would prepare 3 or 4 dinners in small portions in microwaveable containers from which he could choose in his very own apartment. This was one of them. One evening as I was loading the current offerings into his refrigerator and listing them off to him, I made the error of referring to it, as my sister and I had come to in college when the term pasta was de rigeur, à la mode, and all that, as Pasta with Clam Sauce. Had he been physically able to take a couple of confused steps backwards while shaking his head in mystification, he would have. He settled for the head shake, the wrinkled nose, and the, “Pasta?!?” S***! Everything old is new again, a concept that often blindsided me in those days; it took remarkably small deviations from what had become “normal” to utterly befuddle him. And he would perseverate about it for days. But I had become nothing if not quick on my so-to-speak feet, and without missing a beat or even looking up, casually explained that I’d cooked the linguine more al dente than usual to allow for reheating in the microwave. Whew! Dodged another one.
PASTA WITH CLAM SAUCE, THE RED VARIATION
Serves 2, or 1 with leftovers
For me, tomato, potato, and pasta products all pack great wallops of comfort. Given world enough and time I could figure out how to integrate all three. Here, I’ll settle for two. When I need serious nourishment on many levels, I go for the red sauce version. Should you choose to go the white sauce route, simply omit the tomato sauce and leave everything else the same.
1/2 pound pasta of your choice*
Sea or kosher salt for cooking water
2 or 3 cloves garlic
1 can minced clams (6.5 ounces)
1 bottle clam juice (8 ounces)
1 can tomato sauce (8 ounces)
Sea or kosher salt and grinds of pepper to taste
Pinch red pepper flakes (1990s evolution)
Generous handful of Italian parsley, chopped**
Parmesan cheese, grated
* I used gomitoni, which the daughter and I fell in love with last summer in Italy. I tried to find a translation, and the only one I found translated it as gomitoni. Big help. They look like big snail shells. We saw them in all sorts of sizes; some I swear were practically as large as my fist. Regardless of the size, they’re clearly designed to trap luscious quantities of sauce.
** The original was, of course, made with the curly vintage. Be sure to use Italian, or flat leaf, parsley, as it has a much, much brighter flavor.
- Begin heating water to cook pasta. When hot, add a palmful of salt to the water. Stir, then taste it. It should taste like the ocean.
- Chop, grate, and open everything; this comes together quickly (thank heaven).
- Film the bottom of a skillet or saucepan large enough to contain both the sauce and the cooked pasta. Warm over medium heat. When oil shimmers, add the garlic. Let it cook until very fragrant – probably no more than 30 seconds. Do not let it brown. To stop it cooking, add the bottle of clam juice. Also drain the juice from the can (hold back the clams; they’ll go in at the very end, and if you add them now, they’ll take on the consistency of little pencil erasers) and add the tomato sauce. Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer while the pasta cooks. Just before the pasta timer goes off, season the sauce to taste with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes.
- Cook the pasta for 3 minutes less than the package instructions state. Set a timer. When it goes off, use a strainer or tongs to transfer the pasta from the water to the saucepan. Also add a ladleful of pasta water. Add the clams and the parsley. Stir everything together and cook for about a minute or two more; taste to see if it’s the right degree of al dente for you.
- Dish up and garnish liberally with Parmesan. It is perfectly acceptable to moan with pleasure as you fork up the first bites.
- Also great cold for breakfast, one of the many things I can say publicly now that my father is gone.