Groundhog meteorologists notwithstanding, seasons are shapeless, poorly defined things. To wit: Traditionally, in North America, the "winter" season is regarded as beginning at some point in the back half of December (the solstice) and extending into the back half of the following March (the equinox)—and yet, somehow, through some loophole or technicality or warping of space-time, the current winter has been going on for no less than the entire duration of human existence, or anyway for long enough that you cannot even remember what warmth feels like, I mean it cannot possibly have been less than 82 years since the last time you could walk from here to there outdoors without both snowshoes and praying for swift death.
Likewise with clam season (minus the praying for death), the boundaries of which vary wildly from place to place: Along the coast of New England, for example, clam season generally coincides with the warmer months; in a different spot along the coast of New England that is literally nine inches from that other spot, the people have never even heard of clams at all and will chase you with sticks and rocks if you so much as ask about them. The good news is, "clam season" is mostly a human construct (like hygiene, dammit!): Generally clams are OK to eat year-round, but may taste better or less-better at different times of year depending on water temperature and other seasonal fluctuations or whatever, I mean I don't even know what "fluctuation" means and can't pronounce it, but it looks nice. The reason to set boundaries around the clamming time of year is to give the clams a chance to grow and reproduce, which they're happy to do any old time of year, because clams are free-lovin' horndogs.
This has been a way of hedging against the inevitable onslaught of provincial Comic Book Store Guys telling us that, nuh-uh, in [random small coastal town along insignificant body of water] clam season lasts from May 9 to six minutes later on May 9, don't you know anything about [random small coastal town along insignificant body of water], douche. Whether clam season is beginning now or ending now, clams are good, unlike winter, which is similarly ill-defined but always bad. Send the latter off (God will it ever fucking end) by consuming many of the former, is what I am saying. So let's make a white clam sauce.
The first step, of course, is to acquire clams. Two kinds, to be precise: actual, living hard clams in their shells (more on this in a second), and [assumes action preparedness stance] chopped clams [dodges harpoon] in cans [dodges several hundred more harpoons].
Here's the thing. Those live clams in their shells are, well, alive. You preserve them in this state until the moment you are ready to cook them (again: more on this in a second), and then near the very end of the whole undertaking you add them to the hot cooking vessel and they open and cook (die) and release lots of delicious briny clam liquor into your food and that's lovely, and your serving platter or whatever has a bunch of attractive opened clam shells atop it with their now-cooked residents all steaming and glistening and appetizing and that, too, is lovely. Wonderful, even. The problem here, though, is that these clams take up many cubic miles of space in your wok or skillet or the repurposed drip-pan you have pressed into service as a cooking vessel by the side of your festively glowing oil-drum inferno; there will not be room for very many of them in your finished product, which after all is clam sauce and not, say, shallot sauce or garlic sauce or a loose confederation of pasta products and a depressingly small contingent of deceased bivalves, God, this is no less disappointing than anything else in my life, why do I even bother, I am not going to bother anymore, I am going to drive into a gorge.
This is to say, the idea here is to celebrate clams and feel good about and nourished by them, and you ought to invite as many of them as you can to the party, and canned clams are charming, and anyway this is not your internet food column so quit with the side-eye and make with the cans. Chopped clams and not minced ones, which are tiny and annoying, and not baby ones, which tend toward flavorlessness. You'll need more cans than you think, because 763% of the volume of a can of chopped clams is clam liquor, with like one or two clam chips floating in it. If you are making enough white clam sauce for an entire pound of pasta, get six or even eight cans of chopped clams. Open these, drain their liquid into a big bowl and set it, and the chopped clams themselves either in their cans or in some other vessel, aside, as you'll be needing both a bit later.
Now. As for the live clams. A typical net-bag that you can get at the seafood counter of a typical supermarket contains a few dozen of them, and that ought to be enough. Littlenecks are great; so are cherrystones; razor clams are altogether wrong, and geoduck is actually kind of horrifying and please do not attempt this with geoduck. Keep your live clams alive. We covered this at great and terrible length back when we did steamed bivalves, but here's a refresher: Buy them fresh, give them air and cold and moisture (do not seal them inside a plastic bag or cover them with ice), and use them within, say, 12 hours of purchase if that's at all possible. Stick them in an open paper bag on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator and gently lay a damp paper towel over top of them. When you're ready to get started making white clam sauce, check them for signs of life: Any that are closed and whose shells are intact are fine. If they're open, pinch 'em shut for a five-count and/or flick the shit out of their shells; if they stay closed when you release them or close (even very slowly) when you flick them, they're OK. If their shells are broken or they cannot be induced to close or they sign their unborn daughters up for Twitter accounts to "protect her intellectual capital," they are dead or probably should be, and must be discarded.
Another neat thing you can do with your live clams is drive to New Jersey and throw them very hard at Darren Rovell, but also you can submerge them for, oh, 10 minutes in some very cold water with a hearty pinch of black pepper and/or cornstarch in it. This will (or should) induce them to spit out any sand or grit inside their shells, which sounds like it will be hardcore ("... and then they were spittin' sand all over the fuckin' place!") but is not. Truthfully you will not be sure that it has happened. After that ten-minute bath, dump them in a colander and spray them with some more cold water to blast off any dirt or sand on the outside of their shells, and they're ready to cook. They've just been dunked in a freezing black-pepper bath and sprayed with ice-cold water; they're very tired and could use a break; leave them alone to hang out and talk shit about you in the ancient tongue of the clams for a bit.
Now, get a big pot of salted water heating to a boil on the stove. This needn't be the tongue-curing saltwater we used for shrimp pasta (the clams themselves will release some brine into the sauce, and don't need any help from you to taste plenty clammy), but ought to taste salty, so that the eventual pasta will contribute something more than mass to the affair. Use your own judgment here: Dump some salt into the water when it gets warm; stir it, and taste. Does it taste salty? OK. That probably means that it is salty, or that you are having a stroke and your sensory perception is all fucked up. In either case, there's no point in adding more salt to the water.
Eventually this water will come to a boil and you will dump a pound of dried linguine into it. We'll get to that.
While the water heats on one part of your stove, haul out a nice big flat-bottomed wok or skillet or saucier pan or whatever and cook some crushed red pepper in extra-virgin olive oil over medium-low heat for a few minutes. Do be generous with that crushed pepper here: A nice hearty pinch will do, and a weenie baby pinch will not. (You do not need to be told what a nice hearty pinch looks like—you just need to be intellectually honest when grabbing one. You're not looking for five-alarm chili here, but your finished product should leave a pleasant, lingering, gently insistent warmth on your tongue that sends you back, unconsciously, for more and more bites. "Pleasant, lingering, gently insistent" is not exactly a scientific measurement. Still. A nice hearty pinch.)
Keep the heat pretty low. After a couple of minutes, you'll notice that the oil has begun to turn a pleasant, not-burnt orange-ish color and smells like dried chilis (and not like burnt olive oil). Things are going to start happening kind of quickly now. Bump the heat up just a tad, and add some minced garlic and shallot to the vessel. As soon as they're fragrant (measure this by holding your face a foot above the cooking aromatics; you'll know they're ready if, when you inhale deeply through your nose, your pants explode off your body in a blizzard of shredded fabric), dump the canned clams into the pan.
You're not really looking to cook these, so much as to toss them around with the hot oil for a few moments. Anecdotally (where "anecdotally" means that an internet food person says so and there's really no risk involved in taking his word for it), this will increase the overall clamminess of your dish by ensuring that even those scant few bites that do not include any actual clam will nonetheless taste like clam. After those few moments of tossing, when the clams heat up and you can smell them and oh God, fondling them was probably a really bad choice but maybe worth the burns, splash a few big glugs of cheap-shit white wine in there, along with, oh, maybe a cup-and-a-half of the clam liquid you reserved from the cans.
Let's pause here for a moment, to explain something. Many preparations of clam sauce—both in restaurants and in cookbooks—call for the inclusion of minced pancetta ham or bacon toward the beginning, back around the time you added the aromatics, and yes, nearly all of them taste very good. If you want to do that, hell, do it. However. Clams are richly and robustly flavorful, and delicious, and nothing else tastes like them, and you're doing them a (pleasant tasting, but still) disservice by forcing them to share your palate with an accompanist as forceful and, um, hamfisted as ham. You can have bacon and eggs for breakfast tomorrow; today, let's let clams be the star, OK? OK.
Turn the heat up and bring this soupy stuff just to a gentle but steady simmer. By now your pasta water should be boiling. Dump a pound of dried linguine into the boiling water and set a timer for however many minutes the box says your linguine will take to achieve al dente-ness, minus three minutes. Your pasta will be spending some time finishing in the skillet with the clam sauce, and you won't want it overcooked in the end. In the meantime, let the clam sauce simmer away. This will diminish the boozy intensity of the wine you added, and allow the aromatics to flavor all the liquid.
(This gives you a few minutes to do nothing. If thinking of yourself as some kind of industrious go-getter is important to you, you can spend some of this time chopping a nice big handful of flat-leaf parsley. Otherwise, I mean, that bottle of wine is already open, and it's just sitting there, and goddammit, nobody appreciates all that you do, and you'll show 'em, you'll show 'em all.)
Now. The timer is beeping. You need to get your pasta from its pot to the pan with the clam sauce, along with maybe a half-cup or so of the salty, starchy pasta water. If you have pasta tongs and a ladle, that's the way to go; if you don't, grab a clean coffee mug and scoop some pasta water from the pot to the pan, then strain the pasta in a colander and add that to the pan, too. If you need to adjust the heat to keep the clam sauce simmering, do that now. With those tongs or a pair of forks or your terrifying hook-hands, toss the pasta with the sauce. Now, arrange the live hard clams atop the pasta in the pan, then clamp on a transparent lid, and stick around to keep an eye on things.
One sad thing is happening in that cooking: A few dozen harmless bivalves are being steamed to death before your eyes, and that's pretty awful and you feel bad about it. On the other hand, a very wonderful, inextricably related thing is also happening in that pan: The clams, as they cook and their shells open, are each of them releasing a small but wonderful quantity of fresh clam liquor, which is dripping and drizzling and draining down through the linguine into the clam sauce, where it improves greatly upon the clam liquor from the cans and turns your clam sauce into something vivid and distinct and mindbogglingly, lustily satisfying.
Meanwhile your linguine is cooking in the combination of clam liquor, wine, and salty pasta water. After, oh, what, six, seven, eight minutes of this?—the clams will all have opened. Remove the lid and shimmy the pan a little to move the pasta around. Seems like there's less liquid in there than before, yes? The pasta absorbed some of it, and ought to be cooked al dente by now, if not cooked to actual doneness. That was a neat trick, there, yes? No? Jesus, have you even been paying attention at all?
Divide this very attractive food onto two or three or four plates, sprinkle each with some grated Pecorino cheese, some of the parsley you oh shit I forgot to chop the fucking parsley (go ahead and chop the parsley), and maybe a very small squeeze of fresh lemon. It's time to eat.
Serve some more white wine with your linguine with white clam sauce. Don't screw around with salad or asparagus or friggin' kale chips or whatever: The idea is to completely immerse your palate in the taste of the clam sauce you made. With your fork, extract a clam from its shell, and then twirl it into a mouthful of the sauce-coated pasta (and then, I mean I certainly hope you have already deduced that this is where this was going, but: eat it).
A fun thing to do is to attempt to describe to yourself what your linguine with white clam sauce tastes like, as you eat it. It'll hit the familiar notes: briny and vivid, sharp from the cheese, piquant from the chili flakes, tart from the wine and lemon (if you used any), oh and there's the garlic and shallot singing resonant harmony with everything else, swirling it all together into one cohesive thing ... but the clam flavor, above and in front of and at the center of it all, is irreducible, isn't it? Your vocabulary comes up empty here. This food tastes like clams, which taste like clams. Your clam sauce tastes richly, ecstatically like clams, which are the only things that taste anything like clams, and that is the very highest compliment, and also the very reason why you are rolling your eyes and making unseemly groaning noises and blind and deaf to the colorless world above and outside your plate and the side-eyes you are receiving from the people in it who once thought they knew you, that you were in fact a human and not some heretofore undocumented subspecies of large, hairless sea otter. Clams. Clams clams clams.
Try to remember to chew. You survived this miserable, nigh-interminable winter; you ought to be able to survive clam linguine, too.
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