I love vongole (clams). Anything with them in it just tastes healthy to me. Italians say that they are best eaten in months without an R in them – so gennaio (January), maggio (May), giugno (June), luglio (July), and agosto (August). But in fact they taste good year-round, and if they tend to be a bit sandier in the autumn, well… you can just eliminate that sand as you go along.
Removing the clams from their shells is a fussy process but it’s not too time-consuming once you get going and all in all, this wonderfully simple soup is quick to whip up. I wouldn’t recommend substituting tinned clams for fresh; in fact, I wouldn’t recommend using tinned clams for anything at all.
Clams – 1.5 kg
Tomatoes – 4 medium
Rice – 200 g
Garlic – 2 cloves
Chili – small piece
Marjoram – sprig
Place the vongole in a large bowl, sprinkle them with a tablespoon of salt and cover them with abundant cold water. This is meant to make them feel sufficiently ‘at home’ to relax, open up their shells a little and drop any debris – sand, seaweed, broken bits of shell – that they might have brought along for the ride. Leave them to soak for half an hour or so: it’s quite surprising to see how much drops into the bottom of the bowl.
Bring a smallish saucepan full of water to the boil and plunge the tomatoes into it, taking care to pierce the skin with the tip of a knife before you do so, otherwise the tomatoes may explode in water. Let them bubble for four or five minutes, until the skin lifts off easily and the flesh is fairly soft. Remove them (leave the hot water in the saucepan), peel them, chop them and set them aside. Mix the marjoram leaves in with them.
Heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a large frying pan. Peel the garlic and crush the cloves with the side of a knife. Put the garlic and chili (how much chili you use depends on how hot you want your soup) into the oil over a medium heat and cook them until the garlic begins to colour. Now tip in the well drained and rinsed clams. Beware: they will crackle and spit oil all over your nice clean stove and – if you’re not careful – into your eyes as well. So be ready with a lid to cover the pan as swiftly as possible. You should give the pan a gentle side-to-side shake from time to time to move the clams around and make sure they’re all getting as much heat as they need. Keep them crackling over a medium-to-high heat, covered, for about seven or eight minutes, until the shells are all (or mostly) open and the clams have run lots of juice.
Using the lid to hold the clams in place, carefully pour off the liquid into a jug – preferably pyrex – and leave it to stand for a few minutes while you begin removing the clams from their shells. At the same time, bring the saucepan of water back to the boil and cook your rice.
For the purpose of making soup, most Italian cooks would use a short risotto rice. In this case, however, I prefer basmati which feels lighter and less starchy when you come to eat it. I boil the rice in lots of water and drain it when it’s cooked: the steam-in-the-pot method, once again, leaves too much starch for a light consistency.
It will only take a few minutes for any sand that had been hiding in the clam shells to sink to the bottom of the liquid you poured off. If you see sand, decant the liquid carefully into another jug, leaving the sand behind, or strain it through some muslin. Now you can mix the chopped tomatoes and marjoram leaves into the clean liquid. While you’re juggling liquid-checking and rice-cooking, go on with the dull business of prizing the clams out of their shells, taking care to discard any shells that haven’t opened (a bad sign: they should never be forced open) and any where a lot of sand has remained trapped inside.
When the rice is cooked, drain it, then put it in a saucepan large enough to take the rice, the tomatoes and the liquid, and heat the lot through together well. You will probably need to add quite a bit more water – how much depends on the amount of liquid run by the clams, and how strongly flavoured that liquid is. Continue adding and tasting until you have a broth which is tasty and plentiful enough for the rice and clams to move about freely without being completely swamped.
This is very good served with a simple bruschetta: toasted bread rubbed with raw garlic and drizzled with very good olive oil. A sprinkling of chopped parsley is excellent too.
© Anne Hanley, 2013