Clam soup with rice

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
Olive oil

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

Pasta e fagioli

It’s meant to be spring, for heaven’s sake. But I’ve been told this is the coldest March on record in Italy for 50 years; the soil is still winter-cold and far too damp to – for example – plant potatoes which I tried and failed to do the other day. Instead, I spend my time inside, waiting for the sun to come, cheering myself up thinking that the UK is far far worse off, and making the wintriest of soups to keep warm. Such as pasta e fagioli.

This is the most basic of comforting soups and as such has been developed in many ways by its many practitioners. I have probably departed still further from the ‘norm’ in a way that purists might frown at. But my pasta e fagioli is the result of almost 30 years of trial and error so why, I ask, should mine be considered any less justified than the many other versions?

Fresh borlotti beans – 1.25 kg unshelled weight
Onion – 1 large
Carrots – 3
Garlic – 2 cloves
Pasta – 200 g
Vegetable stock cube or vegetable stock
Bay leaves – 4
Olive oil
Parmesan cheese for serving

Courgette – 2
Spinach or kale – about 10-15 leaves

I like to make this with fresh beans when they’re available – and I extend availability by buying up lots when they’re in season and stashing them in the freezer. They freeze superbly – out of their pods, raw, in plastic bags – and lose none of the slightly graininess of their texture when you eventually take them out and cook them. If you’re using beans which are already de-podded, you’ll need about 400-500g for four people.

Peel the onion and garlic and chop them finely. Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and fry the onion and garlic over a medium heat until they’re soft but not browned. Now throw in the beans and the carrots which should be peeled and diced quite small. Toss everything in the oil for a minute or two, add the beans and then pour in sufficient water or stock to cover the vegetables abundantly – there should be two or three centimetres of liquid above the veg. Put the bay leaves in at this point, and the stock cube too if you’re using it.

Leave everything to bubble, covered, over a low-to-medium heat for 20 minutes or so; it shouldn’t take much more than this for the vegetables, including the beans, to be perfectly soft. You may have to add a little more liquid.

Now put a couple of ladles of liquid and vegetables into a goblet and whizz them with a stick blender until they form a smooth paste. Poured back into the saucepan, this will give the soup a slightly thicker consistency than the traditional pasta e fagioli.

I also like to break the rules by adding a note of green to the soup: either a courgette (zucchini) halved long-ways then sliced across into fine half-moons; or spinach leaves with the toughest bits of stalk cut off; or kale with its hard central rib removed and the leaves sliced cross-ways into thin strips. These, however, are entirely optional. If you’re using them, add them to the soup at this point.

Now it’s important to get the consistency right. You are about to cook pasta in the soup, so you may need to add more liquid or risk finding the thing turning into a gluey mess. But as the end result should be like thick creamy soup rather than runny broth with bits in, it’s safer to add less liquid now and top it up (boiling is best as it won’t stop the pasta cooking) as you go along.

Bring the soup back to a very gentle bubbling temperature and add the pasta. Ideally, this should be something very small intended for soups, such as ditalini. But anything will do really: you can break spaghetti up into short pieces, or you can take any pasta shape, put it in a paper bag, and give it a quick going-over with a heavy rolling pin or hammer to break it down a bit. Tip it into your soup and keep the bubbling going for as long as it takes to cook the pasta, stirring it all frequently to stop it sticking to the bottom of the pot and/or turning into a gluggy pudding.

Serve the pasta e fagioli piping hot, with a swirl of olive oil, lots of freshly ground black pepper and plenty of grated parmesan.

©Anne Hanley, 2013