Spaghetti alle vongole

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INGREDIENTS (4 people)

360g spaghetti (or linguine)
1 kg clams
16 cherry tomatoes
3 anchovy fillets
100 ml dry white wine (optional)
3 garlic cloves, minced
Finely chopped parsley

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Basic Techniques needed:
Clams
How to cook pasta

Spaghetti alle Vongole is a very simple dish that will definitely impress your guests.
Follow this process and you will get the true taste of the sea:

  1.  Mince the garlic and chop the parsley
  2. Steam the clams (see Clams for details):
    Thoroughly wash the shells, discarding any broken ones
    Steam in a pan, lid on, until they open up
    Discard the shells that didn’t open
    Filter the liquid
  3. Shell about half of the clams, leaving the other half in the shell
  4. Peel the tomatoes: prick their skin with the tip of a knife and plunge them into the bolilng water in the pot you will use for the pasta, then put them in a bowl filled with cold (better iced) water;
  5. In 2 tbsp. olive oil, shallow fry the minced garlic on very low heat, being very careful it doesn’t get brown (burnt garlic will ruin your dish), about 1 minute, then add the anchovy fillets
  6. When the anchovy fillets have dissolved into the oil, add the liquid from the clams and 100 ml water or white wine if using it;
  7. Peel the tomatoes, quarter them and add them to the sauce; cook on low heat
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  8. When the liquid has reduced to 1/3, add the clams, including the shelled ones
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  9. Cook the pasta in plenty of salty water (see How to cook pasta)
  10. Add the sauce to the cooked pasta, sprinkle with finely chopped parsley and serve
    TIP: instead of cooking the pasta completely, drain it a couple of minutes before the cooking time indicated on the packaging and finish it off with the sauce, adding a few tbsp. of its cooking water to prevent it form becoming too dry; the pasta will absorb all the flavours. NOTE: in this case, add the clams at the very end to avoid overcooking them

Frutti di Mare (Seafood pasta sauce)

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Basic techniques needed:

Tomato Sauce
And at least one of the following:

How to steam mussels
Prawns & prawn stock
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Ingredients (for 4 people):

1/2 onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 anchovy fillets
800g peeled tomatoes
Salt & sugar, to taste
Finely chopped parsley, to taste
Chilli pepper (optional but recommended)

600g of clams OR 600g of mussels OR 300g of each
6 large or 8 medium prawns
500g squid OR 500g cuttlefish

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Frutti di mare is the generic Italian word for seafood. Basically, we say ‘sea fruits’ instead of seafood.

However, meaning of the name aside, pasta with seafood is by far one of my favourites, as long as it is made properly and using good quality ingredients. In a nutshell, what I will describe here is a tomato sauce (see Tomato Sauce in Basics, you will just add some anchovy fillets when sweating the onions and squid or cuttlefish before adding the tomato) with the addition of various types of seafood, most of which will be cooked separately to get the best flavour and texture out of them, and then added to the sauce.

Also note that, since all the ingredients have to be fresh (although prawns and squid can be an exception, and I will explain it), and any reputable fishmonger that sells fresh fish will NOT have everything everyday, you will have to select the ingredients when doing your shopping. Therefore, I will provide guidance on different types of seafood but bear in mind that you don’t need to use them altogether, I would say that three works very well for me, I normally include squid or cuttlefish, that I cook with the sauce, some shellfish (either mussels or clams) and crustaceans (shrimps, but also langostines are good). If I find it fresh, I also love crab, as it gives a fantastic flavour. However, it needs to be treated after cooking or taken off the sauce and used separately as we will see.

NOTE: If you are using mussels, clams and/or prawns, prepare them before you start making the sauce, as you will need to use the liquid for your sauce:

How to steam mussels
Prawns & prawn stock

Also, the only items that you will cook with the sauce from the beginning are the squids (or cuttlefish if using). Shellfish needs to be cooked separately and added at the end, crustaceans (like prawns), once shelled, need to be added at the end as they required minimal cooking

This is the process. In order to understand this recipe, read it through to the end, as I will explain certain things at the end.

So. after you have cooked the clams or mussels and filtered their liquid, and made the prawns stock if using it do the following:

  • Sweat the onion for 5 minutes in 2 tbsp. of olive oil
  • Add the minced garlic and anchovy fillet
  • When the anchovy fillets have dissolved into the oil, add the squid (or cuttlefish), prepared as below (Next paragraph: How to treat seafood)
  • Cook gently without adding any liquid; the squid/ cuttlefish will release its own water, and cook on low heat until it has almost completely evaporated
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  • Add the tomato (blended and passed through a sieve – see Tomato Sauce)
  • Add some liquid:
    1) if using prawns, use the stock, made as described in Prawns & prawn stock
    2) if using mussels or clams, use the liquid, filtered as described in  How to steam mussels
    Even better if you use both!
  • Bring to the boil and then simmer, skimming the surface, for an hour or until the desired thickness is reached – if using crab, add it when the sauce is simmering -see below for cooking times
  • Season wilt salt and sugar
  • Add the other ingredients: prawns, shellfish or whatever you like (see below for cooking times)
  • Add a good handful of finely chopped parsley and some chilli pepper (optional but recommended)
  • Let it cool down completely before using it.

HOW TO TREAT SEAFOOD:

 

Squid and cuttlefish will make your sauce more substantial and will also add interesting note to your dish. Since I like to be in control of the outcome when I cook, I prefer to cook them separately and add them to the sauce at the end, when the sauce is ready; cooking them in the sauce you might end up overcooking them

SQUID
First, some consideration on the product: make sure you buy unprocessed squid . Squid can be fresh or defrosted, it will still be good, but do not buy any precooked one; also, be wary of the so-called calamari (which indicates squid rings in English but is simply the plural for squid in Italian), as it might be processed as well and go for the whole squid; if unsure on how to clean it, have your fishmonger do it for you.
Once cleaned, lay the squid tube on the cutting board and you will find a groove inside; with a very sharp knife, cut along that to open the tube up. You will see that the two sides do not have the same consistency, the outside is harder and the inside is softer
You can cut it in small pieces now, otherwise, you can give it a Chinese style criss-cross pattern that will make it look better when cooked: using a very sharp knife and being light-handed, make shallow incisions; it is preferable to do this on the softer side; whilst it is preferable to cut it into pieces with the harder side up.

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  • Once that has been cut, season with salt and cook gently in a tbsp. of oil without adding any liquid; the squid/ cuttlefish will release its own water, and cook on low heat until it has almost completely evaporated
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  • At that point, try if itstender enough; if not, add a splash of liquid (water or white wine, depending on your taste) and cook until the desired texture is reached (you might need to repeat the operation)

CUTTLEFISH: to some extent it is similar to squid once cooked, although much different as it’s got a big bone and the body is not a tube like squid; it’s also got a much bigger ink sac (the ink can be used as an ingredient in many other preparations) and it is more tender and requires a shorter cooking time compared to squid.
Other than that, what I said about the criss-cross pattern applies to it as well

MUSSELS: either mussels or clams is a must in a seafood sauce, it won’t just look and taste right without. Mussels are very delicate and the long cooking time of the sauce would destroy them; furthermore, the liquid that they release needs to be filtered, as it might contain sand and other impurities, therefore you should cook them separately.
See How to steam mussels for more details. I suggest that you cook the mussels and filter their liquid before adding the tomato sauce to the squid (or cuttlefish base). At this point you should know that you need to add some liquid to the tomato in order to simmer your sauce, and you can add that liquid instead of /along with the water.
IMPORTANT: the liquid is very salty, so that will reduce the amount of salt you need to add to the sauce
Cooking time in the sauce: add them to the sauce after turning the heat off as the  mussels should be completely cooked already and overcooking will ruin them

CLAMS: clams are cooked pretty much like mussels, the only difference is that they do not have bits of seaweed coming out of the shell but will need to be rinsed thoroughly before cooking. Everything else is the same, including filtering the liquid and adding it to the sauce
Cooking time in the sauce: you can add them after turning the heat off as the  clams should be completely cooked (same as mussels)

PRAWNS
See: Prawns & prawn stock :
Shells and de-vein the prawns, make a stock with the heads and shells, add it to the tomato sauce and simmer until it reaches the desired thickness.
You can cut the tails as you wish: in small pieces, or lengthwise (they will take a nice spiral shape when they cook), or just leave them whole and place one on top of the pasta for a nice presentation
Cooking time in the sauce: prawn tails require minimal cooking, 3-4 minutes is enough

CRAB
I do not suggest a whole crab for your sauce, unless you’ve got a massive pot. Also, use fresh crab (it should actually be still alive when you buy it). If only precooked crab is available, just leave it, it’s pointless.
To make it easier I suggest that you buy the claws only (obviously is available and fresh): cook them in the sauce until you smell the crab (you won’t miss it it’s a very distinctive aroma), then take them off the sauce, rinse and break the shells to extract the pulp. The pulp can then be added to the sauce, but personally I prefer using it for other preparations (a filling for ravioli, a mousse, a fish cake just to name the most obvious)

Tomato Sauce

Tomato sauce is one of the most popular sauces in Italian cooking. It is normally served with pasta but can be used in many different recipes.
What I describe here is the most basic and, so to speak, neutral tomato sauce. Other ingredients can be added depending on what the sauce is for, but these are the steps to obtain a very good base.

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INGREDIENTS

800g peeled tomatoes
400ml water
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped (See: how to Chop an onion in Basics)
3 garlic cloves, finely chooped
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
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A consideration on the tomatoes: you might use fresh tomatoes instead, but since not all tomatoes are suitable for a sauce and they need to be treated before cooking, we can stick to peeled tomatoes for now as they guarantee consistent results, as long as you buy good quality ones.

First, sweat your onion in two tablespoons of olive oil, on a very low flame, and after 4-5 minutes, add the garlic, being careful as it will burn very quickly if the oil is too hot. A minute or so should be enough for the garlic, and now it’s time to add the tomatoes.
When adding the tomatoes, what we want is to get rid of the seeds and the bits of skin still attached to them. Back in the days, a vegetable mill was used; although it is still a good tool to have, it is pretty time consuming to use and to wash, and people simply prefer using a hand blender.

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The problem using a hand blender is that the seeds will stay intact; therefore, what I normally do, is to blend the tomatoes and them pass them through a sieve:

You can see below all the seeds that would otherwise have gone into your sauce:

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As you can see, I’ve added some water at the end; all recipes that you will see call for a fairly long cooking time, from 30 to 90 minutes let’s say: if you don’t add some water to open up your sauce it will become too thick, will stick to the bottom of the pan and eventually burn.

The quantity of water can vary depending on how long you want to cook the sauce for, how thick you want it to be , but half of the weight of the tomatoes is a good starting point.
After adding the water, bring the sauce to the boil quickly and then turn down and simmer gently for at least 40 minutes or until the sauce reaches the desired thickness. I also suggest that you skim the surface every now and then as a foam will form:

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Towards the end, add the salt and sugar
NOTE: the above quantities of salt and sugar are only a rough guideline, and I suggest that you add them little by little and taste the sauce; with a bit of practice you will know what the right quantity is. Also, some people don’t add sugar to their tomato sauce; I do it firstly because tomatoes have their own acidity and the sweetness of the sugar counterbalances it very well; furthermore, if I’m using peeled tomatoes this is even more important as citric acid is added to them as a preservative

Another important thing to take into account is that this sauce tastes better if you let it cool down before using it