Happy as a clam? The quote in its entirety explains a lot: Happy as a clam in mud at high tide. A clam at high tide cannot be dug up and eaten, and is, therefore, a happy one. Our state has plenty of clams, Razor, Geoduck, Manila, Butter, Littleneck . . .
Either fitting or odd that my dad, an eastern Washington farmer/rancher/rodeo guy, loved the Washington coast so much. Clams, smelt, oysters, he went for it. Once, when he discovered that we’d hit a smelt run, he took off his pants – we did too – knotted the legs, waded into the surf and started scooping. When in season, we went for razor clams, his favorite. He brought my brother and me into the muck along with him. No matter the time of day, we were there at low tide with boots, burlap sacks, buckets and those narrow, flat-nosed clam shovels. Mostly we clawed into the sand with our bare hands. Freezing cold, sandy mud and wet, we didn’t notice until after. Our mission was clams and we went all in. I mean that literally. For supper we’d eat razor clams in dad’s chowder, smaller clams breaded and fried with a squeeze of fresh lemon.
When John Hinterberger, Seattle Times columnist and restaurant critic, published his clam spaghetti in the Seattle Times in 1987, of course, it caught my eye. I followed his recipe exactly at first and after a while his clam pasta became my clam pasta. Our recipe calls for dried herbs and pasta, canned clams, nothing fresh save the onion and garlic, which is why it was, and is, such a good pantry supper. White wine, mushrooms and olives appear in a revised version, but I’m not budging. Clams from a can? Some of us might be scornful, as I was. I got over it. A person can’t turn her back on something this convenient and delicious. We took these ingredients on our Utah camping trip last spring and it was a Coleman stove gourmet dinner in two pots in about 30 minutes. Once you’ve gotten past the canned clams, then go ahead and try it with fresh clams. They’re local, as is Hinterberger.
His pasta has been part of our supper routine for a long time now and we’re happy as you-know-what about it. I looked through my own recipe archives hoping that maybe the original was there. I must have been a little obsessed with losing it at the time. I found the original 1987 newspaper clipping, a photograph on one side, recipe on the other, and I’d made three copies. Smitten from the beginning I guess.
Thanks to Hinterberger, and to my dad who got me going with clams and cooking. This is the original recipe, hot off the 24-year-old press.
John Hinterberger’s Clam Spaghetti Recipe
4 – 6 servings. This is a light sauce, coating pasta just so and underscoring the clam flavor. Make it with canned, or, if you must, with fresh clams.
Ingredients: ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided (I use less.)/ 1 dried red chili pepper, finely chopped/ 1 large onion, chopped/ 3 large garlic cloves, minced or mashed/ ½ cup fresh basil leaves, chopped, or 1 tablespoon dried/ 1 tablespoon dried oregano/ Salt and pepper/ 2 cans (4½ ounces) chopped clams, drained with liquid reserved. (I use 3 cans)/ 1 pound dried spaghetti/1 cup chopped parsley/ Pimento, chopped (optional)/ Grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
1. Put ½ cup, or less, olive oil in a large cast-iron skillet and heat slowly. Add the dried chili pepper, chopped onion and garlic cloves. Cook slowly for about 30 minutes or until the onions are very soft. (I often add red pepper.)
2. Add to pan the basil, oregano, salt and pepper and liquid from the clams. Continue to simmer until liquid is reduced. Keep warm.
3. Bring kettle of water to a boil. Add a tablespoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of oil. Cook spaghetti until just al dente.
4. As pasta is cooking, add the clams, parsley and 3 tablespoons of cheese to the sauce and simmer at low heat for about 5 minutes. Add pimento, chopped, if desired.
5. After draining the pasta, stir into the sauce and toss. Sprinkle generously with grated cheese and serve directly from the skillet.
With fresh clams: Same basic recipe, but instead of the liquid from canned clams, reduce 2 cups of clam nectar by about half. While pasta is cooking, put fresh clams in the lightly simmering sauce, cover and steam until clams open, 3 – 5 minutes. Remove clams, toss pasta with sauce, add remaining cheese. Serve with clams, a squeeze of lemon and a little more parsley.
What’s for dinner? Keep clam. Hinterberger’s spaghetti is waiting in the pantry.
This recent NY Times recipe for clam pasta uses roasted tomatoes in the broth. Roasted tomatoes? I’m in. Add a half cup to Hinterberger’s sauce or follow the NY Times recipe.
Harvest Washington State clams on your own? Check this out.