Published November 1, 1997.
Start with small littlenecks or cockles, cook them separately, and use the natural clam juices as the basis for a quick sauce.
Many versions of this dish feature a soggy mess of canned clams tossed with some overcooked pasta.
Pasta with clam sauce is an easy-enough dish made of simple-enough ingredients; to be at its best, though, it must be made with fresh ingredients, including (if not especially) the clams. We wanted to find just the right proportions of just the right ingredients to make the best clam sauce possible—except, perhaps, if we were in Italy.
We tried to get as close as we could to the diminutive Italian clams by using the smallest littlenecks we could find, the littleneck being the clam most often used in clam sauce here in America. The sauce made from these little littlenecks was good, but it was also expensive. Consequently, we tried the larger and cheaper cherrystone and then the still larger and cheaper quahog. But these clams, no matter how long or short we cooked them, were tough, and they lacked the distinctive brininess of the littlenecks. We discovered, however, that these less expensive clams did produce delicious clam juice. So we substituted some quahogs for some of the littlenecks, just for the juice, thereby saving a little money. As for the method, we cooked the clams first, just until they gave up their juices, then removed them from the pan (when overcooked, clams get tough). We then recombined the clams with the sauce at the end of cooking just enough to reheat them. For flavor, we thought we needed an acid ingredient. White wine, as well as just a little diced tomato (which also helped to color the dish), did the job.list of recipes