~ Butter Me Up: Mel's Capellini a la Clams Casino ~
Classic and fantastic, I made clams casino over the weekend -- a retro Italian-American favorite appetizer that pleases everyone who loves clams. Steamed clams, on the halfshell, slathered with an herby bacon-and-garlic compound butter, topped with a mound of crunchy bacon-and-breadcrumb mixture, baked until golden brown. What's not to love. There were just three of us, two guys and moi -- we ate two dozen and would have eaten more (and I stopped at four).
Earlier in the afternoon, as I was preparing the compound butter and breadcrumb topping, it occurred to me how yummy the butter would be if tossed into a bowl of steaming hot pasta and topped with a sprinkling of crunchy breadcrumbs -- to serve as a side-dish to clams casino. It was only natural for my foodie mind to take it one step farther: toss steamed, shucked clams into the pasta too -- to serve as an entrée. I slept on it, awoke with it, and decided to get on it.
It only took about 30 minutes to whip up another batch of compound butter and make the breadcrumb topping (that's how quick and easy they are to make), adjusting (cutting back) both recipes quantities a bit to accommodate 1 pound of pasta -- a family-friendly amount. I sent Joe off to get more clams and here I am -- happy as a clam in Happy Valley writing about my latest creation. It didn't take me long to come up with a name for it either, after Joe opined that I use capellini -- not spaghetti.
Part One: Burping or Purging the Clams of Sand:
Soaking clams in cold water helps them burp out or purge the sand. All clams, which live on the ocean floor, contain sand. It's caused by their constant siphoning the sandy ocean water through their shells. One of the least appetizing foodie experiences is to eat a forkful of perfectly-cooked clams and end up with grit in your teeth -- a clear sign that the cook or chef didn't burp or purge the clams. Its an easy process but requires a couple of hours, so include that in your game plan (or do it the day before).
Gently tap each uncooked clam whose shell is open against your countertop. It should close immediately upon tapping. If it does not, it's dead and should be discarded. Rinse the clams under cold running water and use a stiff brush to scrub the shells of dirt or grit. Place the clams in a large bowl and cover with a mixture of 1 gallon of water + 1/4 cup sea salt per 2 pounds of clams. Let for about 30-45 minutes, then remove the clams individually and place in a colander. Discard the water in the bowl, replace with a fresh water and salt mixture, then return the clams to soak for another 30-45 minutes. Repeat the process another two or three times, until the water is clear of sand and grit. Drain and cook the clams in any manner you like.
Part Two: Making Breadcrumb Topping & Compound Butter
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs, no substitutions
8 ounces salted butter, at room temperature, very soft (2 sticks)
1/2 cup finely-diced yellow or sweet onion
1/4 cup each: red and yellow bell pepper
2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
2 tablespoons dried parsley flakes or tarragon leaves (total throughout recipe -- 1 tablespoon for breadcrumbs, 1 tablespoon for compound butter)
1 1/2 teaspoons fennel powder (total throughout recipe -- 1/2 teaspoon for breadcrumbs, 1 teaspoon for compound butter)
3/4 teaspoon coarsely-ground black pepper (total throughout recipe -- 1/4 teaspoon for breadcrumbs, 1/2 teaspoon for compound butter)
scant 1/2 teaspoon sea salt (total throughout recipe -- 1/8 teaspoon for breadcrumbs, 1/4 teaspoon for compound butter)
lemon wedges, for squirting each finished serving of capellini a la clams casino
~Step 1. To make the breadcrumb topping, place 4 ounces of the finely-diced bacon or pancetta in a 3-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon fennel powder, 1/4 teaspoon coarsely-ground black pepper and 1/8 teaspoon sea salt. Over medium-high, medium-, medium-low heat, stirring frequently, fry the meat until it is golden brown and crispy and has rendered its fat, about 6 minutes, lowering the heat as necessary if the mixture begins to smoke. Add the panko breadcrumbs and parsley or tarragon. Stirring constantly, cook until breadcrumbs are lightly-toasted, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a paper-towel lined plate to thoroughly drain and cool. You will have 3/4 cups of breadcrumb topping.
~Step 2. To make the compound butter, place the remaining 3 ounces of the finely-diced bacon or pancetta in the same 3-quart chef's pan. Over medium-high, medium-, medium-low heat, stirring frequently, fry the meat until it is golden brown and crispy and has rendered its fat, about 6 minutes, lowering the heat as necessary if the mixture begins to smoke. Stir in the onion, bell peppers, garlic and parsley or tarragon. Add the 1 teaspoon fennel powder, 1/2 teaspoon coarsely-ground black pepper and 1/4 teaspoon sea salt. Stirring constantly, cook until vegetables are softened, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a paper-towel lined plate to thoroughly drain and cool to room temperature, about 1 hour. Place butter in a large bowl and add the cooled meat/veggie mixture to the bowl. Using a rubber spatula, thoroughly combine. You will have 1 1/2 cups of compound butter.
Part Three: Perfectly-Steaming the Clams
The shells on clams should be closed when you buy them, or, they should close when tapped (as explained above). A clam that will not close when prodded is a dead clam. Throw it away. Fiction: A clam that doesn't open during the cooking process is a dead clam. Fact: A clam that doesn't open during the cooking process is a live clam that needs to be cooked longer. I've got 48 live topneck clams which have been purged as directed above -- that works out to be a generous 2-cups of shucked clams -- one dozen for each of four servings of pasta. Feel free to change the amount to suit yourself.
I am giving them a basic steam in plain water today, until each one opens up wide. I like to use my electric skillet for this task because it controls the heat perfectly, and, it has a glass lid which acts as a window -- allowing me to remove each clam the moment it opens up, so it doesn't overcook. I do this in two batches of 24 clams each so as not to overcrowd the skillet.
~Step 1. Place 1 quart water in bottom of electric skillet and insert the rack. Close the lid and adjust the heat to high (400° on this skillet). In the meantime, drain and discard the water from the bowl of clams. When the water in the skillet is boiling, open the lid and place 24 clams on the rack. Close the lid and steam clams until each one pops open. Opening and closing the lid on the skillet as you work, use a pair of tongs to remove the steamed clams as they open, transferring them to a plate or a bowl to cool. Repeat this process with the second 24 clams, adding 1-2 cups more water to the skillet to make up for what evaporated. When cool enough to handle, pluck the clams from their shells and place in a bowl. You will have 2+ cups.
Part Four: Cooking, Tossing & Serving the Capellini a la Casino
1 tablespoon sea salt, for seasoning pasta water
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon sea salt, for seasoning pasta
1 cup compound butter, slightly more or less to your liking (from above recipe)
48 steamed and freshly-shucked clams (from above recipe)
3/4 cup breadcumb topping (from above recipe)
lemon wedges, for garnishing each portion
~Step 1. In an 8-quart stockpot bring 5 quarts of water to a boil and add the salt. Add the capellini and cook until al dente, about 4-5 minutes. Check it every few seconds after 4 minutes. Do not over cook. Drain into a colander and give it a few quick shakes to remove excess water.
~Step 2. Place 1 cup of the compound butter in the still hot stockpot and add the garlic powder, red pepper flakes and sea salt. Return the steaming hot pasta to the pot and place the pot on the still-warm stovetop. Using two forks or spoons, toss like you would a salad, until butter is melted and pasta is coated in butter "sauce". Cover the pot and give the pasta a moment or two to absorb all of the butter and it flavors. Taste and add a bit more butter, to your liking, or, serve the remaining 1/2 cup with a crusty loaf of bread at the table (it's great). Place one dozen clams in each of four warmed bowls and portion the pasta over the top of each. Sprinkle breadcrumbs over each portion and serve immediately with lemon wedges for squirting over the top.
Mel's capellini a la clams casino? I'll be making this again!
Special Equipment List: stiff scrub brush; board; chef's knife; 3-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides; spatula; paper towels; large spoon or spatula; large rubber spatula; 16" electric skillet w/wire rack insert; tongs; 8-quart stockpot; colander; two large forks or two large spoons
Cook's Note: It's funny how a craving for seafood always hits me around this time of year. Luckily, high-quality, flash-frozen, king crab legs are available to me year-round at our Happy Valley Sam's Club. ~ Mel's Wine & Tarragon-Steamed King Crab Legs w/Creamy Lemon-Tarragon & Shaved-Corn Orzotto ~ is a dish I simply adore. It's a perfect cold-weather seafood-craving indulgence. The recipe is in Categories 3, 4, 14 & 21.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2017)