A Creamy, Carbonara-ish Clam Pasta (That's Just As Good Without Clams)

April 23, 2018

I live in the West, surrounded by cattle ranches, but every summer, I visit my parents on Cape Cod, and cook dinner for my family nearly every night. Last summer, while messing around with clams, mussels, and scallops, I developed a chive linguine that depends on a similar method used to make carbonara. This method creates such a satisfying dish that, when I don’t have access to fresh clams, I simply leave it out of the recipe. (Food52 note: That makes it a 5-ingredient recipe, excluding S&P.)

While the mention of carbonara makes our eyes light up with thoughts of bacon (or guanciale or pancetta), the pork (and its fat) in this beloved pasta dish doesn’t really pull its weight. The force of the dish—and the resulting creamy, silken sauce that coats every strand of pasta—is the eggs. Or, more specifically, egg yolk plus cream. When combined with hot pasta over gentle heat, the eggs create carbonara.

Okay, but what do clams have to do with carbonara? Photo by James Ransom

To tell you how I got from mollusks to the carbonara method, I have to take you to the west coast of France, near La Rochelle. While staying with a family there, I watched as my host whisked a couple egg yolks into a pot of mussels stewed in cream. This is a classic French technique for enriching a sauce, called a liaison. That time, there was no pasta involved (we dipped baguette into that luscious sauce).

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But that is how, with three dozen little necks rinsed in the sink and a pot of linguine on the stove on Cape Cod, I switched gears from making the usual linguine con vongole. While the clams steamed open, I simply whisked a couple of egg yolks with heavy cream. (I’ve also used half and half and condensed milk, which work, again, because of those eggs, which makes this a pantry dish.)

With the pasta drained and back in the same pot, I used the carbonara method to let the heat from the pasta set the yolks, then added in the clams and just enough of their liquor to create a silken sauce. A grinding of pepper, a shower of parsley, this was a strikingly different linguine with clam sauce. Rich and mellow, it let the flavors of clam fully shine through.

As with any carbonara, the temperature is key to setting the eggs without overcooking them. I depend on the residual heat from the pasta, as I toss it with the yolks and cream, supported as necessary by the burner on low heat. It’s always surprising how quickly this pasta dish gets “tight,” so having the back-up pasta water—if not using clams—is essential to splash into it and set everything right again.

Back in the mountains, I kept making this pasta because I have a bounty of pastured eggs that produce the most brilliantly hued sauce. And while I have no fresh Little Necks on hand, fresh chives are the first edible that show up in my garden in springtime. So, until my next trip to the east coast this summer, it’s land over sea. And I’m here to report that the eggs and chives are more than enough to carry this any-night-of-the-week-pasta dish no matter where you live.

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I wake up thinking, What's for dinner? The answer comes from the stocking as much local food as I can store, buying dry goods in bulk and shopping for seasonal produce. Pickling and canning, sourdough bread baking and grilling are also key parts of the mix as I improvise meals for my family.