Orecchiette with Clams and Calabrian Chiles
Calabrian Chiles are beautiful peppers. They are spicy without being overwhelming, with deep flavor that echoes to Calabria’s dense clay soil, salty sea air, and abundant Mediterranean sun. Calabria is the toe in Italy’s boot; this pepper, originating in Calabria some time in the 1500s, is a distinctive part of the regional cuisine. With more than 500 miles of coastline available to them, Calabrians also embraced seafood, and many of their dishes lend themselves to the fusion of land and sea. With this in mind, we developed this dish to celebrate the food and the flavors of this often-overlooked part of Italy.
First, find clams that you like. We chose littlenecks because they are tender and bite-sized, which will keep them in line with the chopped broccolini and orecchiette. Keep clams in the fridge until you are ready to work with them; if you need to store them longer than a few hours, put them on ice, in the fridge. All clams you intend to soak should have tightly closed shells—an open shell means the clam inside is dead and should not, by any means, be eaten. Soak them in cool salty water for at the very least, 20 minutes, though an hour is better. Clams will breathe in the soaking water and filter out any sand and grit inside their shells, leaving them clean and ready to cook.
Shocking a vegetable means taking it out of boiling water and immediately putting it in a bowl of ice water. This achieves two goals. First, it stops the cooking process, meaning your vegetables won’t overcook. Second, it preserves the color, so in this instance, your broccolini will stay vibrant and green. And there’s a third goal: It makes them cool enough to handle, so you can take them out of the shock water and chop them whenever you’re ready to move them on to the next stage.
The Calabrian Chiles don’t soak and aren’t softened before using them, so just split the dried peppers and shake out the seeds, or scrape them out with a small knife or the tip of a spoon. You can dice them with a knife, or grind them with a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder. How you take them from whole chiles to flakes is up to you, but don’t grind them into fine powder if you use a spice grinder. You want them to have a little bit of texture and presence.
We chose orecchiette pasta primarily for its shape and texture. The cute, dimpled saucers, which means “little ears” in Italian, are dense and chewy, with an indent that holds sauces and ingredients like a cup. We feel pretty strongly about the way orecchiette plays into this dish so we recommend, in all earnestness, that you use this pasta for this dish. Along those lines, we also strongly believe that a dry, acidic white wine is the best choice here rather than something sweeter. You don’t want the sugars in a wine to alter the bracing, savory flavor profile of this dish.
Pull the clams out of the pot in order to stir the sauce together without having the clams fall out of their shells. This will help make a great visual presentation and prevent shells from chipping as you stir. Arrange the clams equally among the individual serving bowls, with a big piece of crusty bread on the side to sop up any extra sauce on the bottom of the bowl. Buon appetito!
1. Scrub clams to remove grit and immerse in enough cool water to cover, mixed with 1 Tablespoon salt. Let stand for 1 hour or more.
2. Roast garlic in a 375°F oven for 30 minutes; when cool enough to handle, separate into individual cloves and remove them from their paper.
3. Blanch broccolini in boiling water with 1 Tablespoon salt, for 2 minutes. Drain and shock broccolini. When ready, chop the stalks into roughly quarter-sized pieces.
4. Remove seeds from dried chiles and dice finely.
5. Cook pasta in boiling water with 1 Tablespoon salt. Drain and hold to the side. Also, reserve ¼ cup of pasta water.
6. Add butter and olive oil to a Dutch oven, on medium high heat. Add broccolini, 1 teaspoon salt, and Calabrian Chile flakes. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes.
7. Add wine and pasta water to Dutch oven to create the sauce and bring to a boil.
8. Add the clams and garlic cloves, cover, and turn heat to medium low.
9. After 5 minutes or so, clams will start to open. Remove them from the pot as they open and set aside.
10. When all clams are open and removed, add pasta to sauce to reheat and toss in Parmesan cheese.
11. Add clams back to the Dutch oven. Gently stir, then serve in a shallow bowl with fresh bread.