Recipe: Fregola with Clams, Tomatoes, and Moscato
Clams always meant Daddy to me. That may not be true for many people. But in my Italian-American family, in the summer in the sixties and seventies, my father and his buddies would go clamming for littlenecks in the refreshing but horseshoe-crab-filled waters off Sea Cliff Beach, waters that were tainted by a constant day-glo oil infusion, compliments of the nearby Long Island Lighting Company. My father thought nothing of eating dozens of these clams at a time, raw, on the half-shell, as they say, with a squirt of lemon or bottled cocktail sauce. “Pollution, what are you talking about? These are as fresh as they get.” My mother had her doubts, but I, being my father’s daughter, figured if they tasted normal they were normal. I really got into the act. It was tons of fun letting those soft, rubbery things slip down my throat. Looking back at that time now, it’s amazing what we put into our bodies—menthol cigarettes, food dye galore, amyl nitrites for dancing pleasure, to name just a few of my favorite things.
As much as he loved his “fresh as they get” clams, we’d often take a health break and order raw clams at a restaurant. Clams on the half-shell, usually cherrystones, were then a popular starter at steak places on Long Island such as Manero’s in Manhasset, and in the city too. You don’t see them around much anymore, except in certain retro steakhouses that serve them with a hint of irony. But god they were good. There’s nothing like the cold, briny jolt you get when a raw clam (a live clam!) hits the back of your throat. And as my father showed me, they tasted just as interesting with a vodka martini at Manero’s as with a cold Ballantine in our back yard.
Raw clams, steamed clams, clams baked with breadcrumbs, garlic, and oregano, all good. Clams were always lurking in our kitchen, either wrapped in a few pages of Newsday or spread out on the counter. There were the clay-colored littlenecks and the darker ones with brownish stripes bought at the Italian fish shop in Glen Cove. My family had one of those giant steamer pots, the kind that came in two parts and had a faucet at the bottom where clam juice could trickle out. I think it was made of a heavy aluminum. It had originally belonged to my Sicilian grandfather, my mother’s father. But my father was its ruler all through my childhood and beyond. I come from a family of shellfish fanatics, a trait I’ve certainly inherited. They ate clams, mussels, oysters, raw and cooked. I loved that clam steamer. Its emergence always signaled a summer party. A vodka on the rocks in one hand, a Kent hanging from his lips, my dad and a few neighbor guys wrestled, half loaded, with big messes of clams and mussels and seaweed and sometimes corn and lobster, stuffing it all into that contraption. It heated at a slow steam, and little by little the clam juice would drip to the bottom. Coffee mugs were offered, so that anyone who wanted (I wanted) could pour themselves a shot of hot clam juice, add a pat of butter, and slug it back. A fabulous aperitivo. I don’t know what happened to that steamer. It probably got left behind when they sold the house and moved to a small condo in Royal Palm Beach. The pot was quite large. I wish I had it now, but where would I put it in my tiny city apartment? It would have to serve as a chair.
And then, of course, there’s the Southern Italian classic, pasta with clams. My favorite, something I always requested for a birthday dinner. It was a standard on our table on Christmas Eve, but you’d never know when it would show up. A good day’s catch at Sea Cliff beach and it might appear on Fourth of July, covered in fresh parsley and basil from my father’s little garden. My family usually made the white sauce variety, no tomatoes. I like it all ways, with tomato sauce, with just a hint of tomato and lots of white wine, with pancetta and hot chilies added. I’m always playing around with different types of pasta and flavorings to see where I can take it. Fregola, a Sardinian pasta made something like couscous, was not anything my father would have been familiar with, but I now often find it, even in mezza-mezza grocery stores. Fregola is roasted, so it takes on a deep, almost smoky taste. And it happens to be excellent with clams. Here’s a new recipe for pasta with clams, an offering to my late, great, clam-loving father. I raise a glass of Ballantine to you (do they still make that beer?).
Fregola with Clams, Tomatoes, and Moscato
(Serves 4 as a main course)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 thick slice pancetta, cut into small cubes
1 large shallot, minced
3 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 fresh red chili, minced (a peperoncino is perfect)
¼ cup Moscato or another slightly sweet white wine
4 round medium-size summer tomatoes, skinned, seeded, and chopped
1 cup chicken broth
¾ pound large fregola
About 4 dozen littleneck or Manila clams (which are basically the same), the smaller the better, well cleaned
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
A few large sprigs of marjoram
A handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Season with salt.
In a large skillet, big enough to hold all the clams when opened, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta, and sauté until just crisp. Add the shallot, garlic, and hot chili, and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the moscato, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the tomatoes and a little salt, and let everything cook at a lively bubble for a few minutes. Add the chicken broth, and simmer uncovered for about 5 minutes longer.
Add the clams, and cook partially covered for a few minutes. Take off the cover, and give them a stir. As the clams open, pull them from the sauce into a bowl, with tongs. They won’t all open at once, so if you leave the early openers in the skillet, they’ll be overcooked by the time they all decide to pop. Drizzle the clams with a little olive oil. Turn off the heat.
When about half of the clams have opened, drop the fregola into the water.
When the fregola is al dente (after about 10 minutes), drain it, and pour it into a large, shallow serving bowl. Add a drizzle of olive oil, the butter, the lemon zest, the basil, and the marjoram, and give it a quick toss. Add the clams back to the skillet, and heat gently for about 30 seconds. Pour the clams and sauce over the fregola, and toss again. Taste for salt, but you probably won’t need any, depending on your clams.