Neil Perry: Say it again clam

Mar 30, 2009


I do love clams, but we can’t call them that in Australia anymore. Instead, we’re now the proud owners of the “cockle” (nee vongole or clam). “Cockle spaghetti, sir?” I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t really work for me on a menu. I like the poetry or romance of vongole or, at the very least, clam spaghetti. But in the interests of standardisation, we’re stuck with it.

Fish names have been standardised across Australia and that isn’t such a bad thing. But a lot seem to have changed in New South Wales. Maybe we had it wrong all the time, but the other states seem to be having their way with us. It’s not just clams: jewfish is now mulloway, blue-eye cod has become blue-eye trevalla and, although I think my gorgeous red snapper is snapper, it is actually bight redfish, which really would sound shocking on a menu.

I think a lot of people find it confusing, but I guess we’ll have to stick with it and see what happens. Names aside, nothing is nicer on a sunny spring day than to sit down to a bowl of spaghetti vongole – sucking the flesh out of clams and slurping down that wonderful salty, garlicky, chilli-flavoured spaghetti – with, of course, a glass of lovely white wine and some crusty bread on the side. It makes for the perfect sitting-on-the-balcony lunch.

Being bivalves, clams are filter feeders and, like oysters and mussels, are becoming easier to grow by aquaculture. That’s great news, as the wild stock is on a heavy quota and it is becoming more difficult to meet the demand as chefs, cooks and Australians generally realise how delicious these little shellfish are. They’re perfect with wine, in a sauce with fish or any number of pasta dishes. Dive in and enjoy one of my favourite offerings from the sea.

Spaghetti vongole

This is one of my very favourite pastas and one of the simplest seafood pasta dishes you can make. I love shelling the little clams (vongole) and slurping the pasta, coated with lots of garlic, parsley and clam juice. I had eaten this dish many times on the Italian Riviera, so when a supply of Tasmanian clams started to arrive in Sydney in the early 1990s, I was more than pleased. I like to add some chilli flakes to give it a slight hit. Serves 4.

400g (14oz) dried spaghetti
1kg (2lb 4oz) live clams (vongole)
125ml (4fl oz/ cup) extra virgin olive oil
35g (1oz/ bunch) flat-leaf (Italian) parsley, chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 French shallots, finely chopped
teaspoon chilli flakes
60ml (2fl oz/ cup) dry white wine
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Clean the clams by giving them a quick rinse in water. Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Add the garlic, shallots, chilli flakes and white wine and bring to the boil. Add the clams and cover. Steam over high heat for 3-4 minutes, shaking the pan, until the shells open. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in plenty of boiling salted water until al dente (about 8 minutes), then drain well. Add spaghetti and chopped parsley to the saucepan and toss through. Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve in four deep pasta bowls.

-This combination of pasta, garlic, chilli and parsley works well with all seafood. You can replace the clams with mussels, pippies or fresh crabmeat. Or, you can saut some prawns (shrimp), rest them on a plate while you make the sauce, then, when ready, add the prawns and pasta and toss together.

-Another good combination is to saut some squid, perhaps even adding a little squid ink, and toss through the pasta. The addition of the ink makesthe pasta slightly black and accentuates the flavour of the sea.

Recipe from The Food I Love by Neil Perry, photography by Earl Carter (Murdoch Books, $85).

Sydney chef and restaurateur Neil Perry designs Qantas First and Business menus. For recipes and cooking tips visit:

Source: Qantas The Australian Way September 2008

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