Don't Salt Your Pasta Water!
An unorthodox way to cook spaghetti with clam sauce
I like salt. A lot. I used to carry a bag of it in my backpack wherever I went. Then one day I forgot to take it out at the airport and got in trouble with TSA. So, I stopped.
Yet the obsession persists. I salt my ice cream and my bananas, my pancakes and my jelly on toast, even my instant ramen and my Chinese takeout, foods that no reasonable person could suggest are shy on sodium. In my kitchen, salt reigns: a ubiquitous sprinkle if not an all-out downpour.
But the other night I met my match, a version of spaghetti and clams so naturally and gloriously salty that it didn’t require a single extra grain. (No joke; I had to hide the salt dish to save myself from myself.) The reason for this is that to intensify the briny liquid released by the clams, I add anchovies and pancetta, which are essentially salt in another — more flavorful — form.
But let’s start with the clams. Your approach to cooking them here will depend a bit on your risk tolerance and generally how much faith you have that things in your life will somehow always turn out okay. The clams I used the other night looked particularly sandy, so I steamed them open separately; this allows you to save all of those beautiful juices while leaving the brackish muck behind, and guarantees that none of that grit will wind up in your sauce. If your clams feel clean and/or you’ve managed to overcome your debilitating fear of sandy sauce, go ahead and cook them right in the pan along with the garlic and anchovies; just add them in step 3 along with the wine.
For me, when and where the clams are cooked is less important than what happens to them once they’re done. Two things: