When I have an evening alone I am met with a dilemma: what am I going to eat? I think that’s a pretty common dilemma that we’re all faced with when it comes to eating alone, but there are different ways to interpret this. To some people, cooking for one is a daunting and cumbersome task that’s reward is not worth the work. To go to all the trouble of chopping, mincing, sautéing, stirring, boiling, roasting, reducing and the like all for you seems too laborious—and it can be. This is especially true if you’re just going to make a single serving of something, no leftovers. All that prepping and cooking might seem worth it if you’re going to make a big batch of something that you can feed off of for a few days but, frankly, I get sick of eating the same thing for lunch and dinner for two or three consecutive days. I don’t disregard that method entirely—sometimes it’s nice to not have to worry about cooking dinner—but sometimes you just want something once.
What I really like about cooking for myself, though, is that I have total free reign over what I’m going to eat. I can cook and eat things I normally wouldn’t get to because a certain someone else isn’t fond of them. I’m pretty fortunate that in this house, that list is a short one. Let me tell you, though, I have no problem planning multiple meals when business trips leave me flying solo at home. I try to cram in as many different meals as I can to monopolize my lone venture.
This, however, does not mean that I want to spend my time tied to the cutting board and stove. Another issue: the ingredients. I hate to have half of a bell pepper or two-thirds of a can of coconut milk hanging out in the fridge, taunting and tormenting me and burning their cries into every crevasse of my brain to be used within a reasonable amount of time. I want to use the whole of something so no foodstuffs call from behind their stainless steel tomb to come play with them, forever and ever and ever. There are exceptions, as there are to every rule; aside from the obvious of boxes of pasta and bags of rice, I don’t mind only using half an onion or lemon because I know I’ll use them later, and any unused canned tomatoes get dumped into a sealable plastic bag and thrown into the freezer. Also, cherry/grape tomatoes and those little mini sweet peppers trump the rule—even if I don’t cook anything else with them I’ll snack on them while I try to decide what I’m going to have for dinner.
All of this practicality aside, though, I know that people who enjoy cooking often do because it’s an act of giving, nurturing, caring for others. I agree completely. However, I have to selfishly say in the most unapologetic way possible that if there is anyone that deserves your nurture and care, it’s you.
So for my nights in solitary confinement this is my go to: Linguine with Clams. It actually, upon reflection, fits perfectly into the perimeters of single cooking. The list of ingredients is actually almost insultingly short. You’re obviously going to use all of the clams and all of the other ingredients (olive oil, garlic, chili flakes, vermouth and pasta) have a long shelf life and many uses. I keep this very simple—it’s one of the few things I feel very puritanical about. You can add tomato, you can add onion or shallot, you can add lemon, or pancetta or basil or oregano. You can add any of that. But you’d be doing it wrong.
I’m sorry—I said puritanical.
All of that other nonsense gets in the way of the clams flavor. Clams have a mild, but very unique flavor to them and you want to compliment them, not overpower. The sauce for this is really nothing more than some wine or vermouth and the oceanic liqueur-like juices the clams give off in the pan. (I read that first line back to myself and it almost sounded like “I let the ingredients speak for themselves and shine through”—like, who cooks something and wants it to totally not taste like itself? It’s like the “world peace” answer. I’m sorry.)
For the clams themselves I prefer either littleneck or manila clams. They’re both about the same size, on the smaller end of the spectrum, and the only real difference being that manilas tend to be a little sweeter and less briney. The smaller ones are preferable because they are naturally tenderer and retain that meltingly soft texture when they’re steamed in the pan. The larger the clam gets, the tougher the meat can be (these aren’t without their uses though; the larger ones are great for frying or chowders). That said, lets say you go to the fish market or grocery store and all they have are top neck clams. These are the next size up from littlenecks and, while they may not be quite as perfectly tender as their smaller-sized brethren, in dire straits are fairly worthy substitutes. I can safely say this because that is the size I had to use this last go around. I will forewarn you that, in my experience, they don’t open as consistently as littlenecks. You may also need to quickly remove the meat from the shells once they’re cooked if you use larger clams, otherwise you probably won’t be able to fit the whole thing into a bowl (or just eat right from the pan—I won’t tell). Needless to say, I don’t both with it with littlenecks.
You really want to cook these the day you bring them home but no later than the following day. Obviously they should not smell fishy and rancid, but, rather, fresh and clean. The simplest way to differentiate between this if you’re not familiar with purchasing seafood is this: if you walk into the grocery store or market and as you approach the seafood counter you say to yourself “what the $&%# is that smell?” then keep on walking. Don’t even bother. Once you’ve found a seafood counter that you don’t recoil at and your clams are home safe and sound, fill a very large bowl with lots of ice. Lay a slightly damp paper towel over the ice, set the clams on top it and cover them with another layer of damp towel. You can just leave them in the netted bag they came in (and if they were given to you in some sort of container rather than netted bag take them out and just set them on the towel). You can keep these in the fridge for up to a day but keep in mind you’ll have to change the ice as it melts. DO NOT let them sit in melted ice.
A lot of recipes for clams make it a point to say that most clams are farm raised now, so they don’t contain any sand and, therefore, don’t need to be soaked in water to purge. Tell that to the dirt that crunches when I chew. So, regardless of the little shellfishes origins, I soak them in cold water that I’ve mixed just a pinch of baking soda in. The idea here is that the clams will start to drink up the water and, when they taste the baking soda they do what anyone would—they spit it back out, along with any sand they’re holding on to.
As you put them into the bowl of water, if any are open even in the slightest give them a tap-tap-tap on the counter. They might close right away, in which case plunk them into their little bath. If you’ve never cooked clams before I think you’ll be—well, forgive me—tickled by watching the open ones close up after you smack them around a little. I hope you are, anyway. I still am. It’s the simple things. If they remain open give them a minute before you tap it again, at which point if they don’t close it is to the trash with them! They’re dead and you can’t eat them. The same goes for any clams that do not open after cooking them. Dead. Trash.
So, once the clams are soaking and you’ve got a big pot of water on the stove for your pasta, mince up some garlic and either a little fresh red chili or red pepper flakes (I am rich with dragon-hybrid cayenne peppers right now so I went with that). Put them in a pan with some olive oil and just let it sit for a moment.
Once the pasta water is boiling, heavily salt it and drop in your linguine. Plan on cooking it for a minute or so less than the package instructs for al dente. Once the pasta hits the water put the garlic-chili pan over low heat and let it warm through gently for about 2 – 3 minutes. Drain and rinse the clams and, once the pan is fragrant, crank the heat and dump them in. Pour over some white vermouth (unless you’re opening a bottle of white wine—then use that), let it bubble up a little, turn the heat to low and slap on the lid.
After about 6 – 7 minutes your pasta should be ready and clams mostly open. Reserve some pasta water (better to take too much than not enough), drain and dump it straight into the pan with the clams. Toss it around so the linguine can start to drink up a little of the sauce and the clams will continue to open. If you need a little more fluidity to the pan to help toss the pasta, add a splash of the pasta water.
(Obviously top neck clams will need a few minutes longer so you will probably want to have the clams landing in the garlic-chili pan the same time the pasta is going in the water. As I also mentioned, they don’t cook quite as consistently so if any are still closed once the pasta has been tossed in, move those to the pasta pan, put over high heat and cover as you toss your pasta. Some just need an extra minute or two. If they still don’t open, trash them.)
Sprinkle on some finely chopped parsley and either transfer to a large, warm bowl or just dive straight into the pan. With bread. You need bread.
I am not eating this in bed…