As the long-awaited summer draws near, our moods change, and so do our menus: Everything lightens up. We swap creamy potatoes for crisp, bright greens; hearty winter squashes for summer ones; and beefy braises for meats straight off the grill. But, in addition to all the things we’ve been missing — the luscious salads, fruits, vegetables and herbs — our best meals ought to pull from the sea.
Lobster, shrimp, crab meat and soft-shell crabs; salmon, sea bass, cod and snapper: All of these creatures are highly suited for summer dining. But, on the East Coast, clams are especially summery.
I’ve long wanted to spend a month or two on the beach with a rake and a bucket, clamming every day and eating my bounty every night. A big pot of steamed clams would always be welcome, whether flavored with garlic and parsley, or with lemongrass and chiles. I would make chowders of every sort, paella with clams and, of course, a lot of clam pasta, perhaps in a light, tomatoey broth, or “acqua pazza.”
Many Italian recipes call for simmering fish and shellfish in acqua pazza, or crazy water. It’s not a loony notion, just a quick way to make a small amount of tasty broth, something obviously more flavorful than poaching seafood in plain water.
Every cook prepares crazy water differently, but most recipes involve olive oil, tomato and a pinch of crushed red pepper. Garlic, parsley, capers, lemon and even smashed anchovy could also be part of the mixture.
It’s the perfect medium to simply and quickly cook fish fillets or shrimp. It takes only a few minutes to put together, and the cooking liquid, conveniently, is also the brothlike sauce. But the spicy broth can be put to good use, too, in a stellar casual dish of clams and spaghetti. You suck the clams from their shells. You attack all the savory juices with soup spoons and chunks of crusty bread.
For a finishing flourish and to give the dish an even more summery feel, I add basil leaves and colorful fresh cherry tomatoes, halved and drizzled with olive oil and salt. A tomato salad topping for spaghetti and steamed clams? Well, call me crazy.
And to Drink …
For those who instinctively grasp whether a white or red wine is best, this dish poses problems. Clams and fresh tomatoes, abetted by spicy peppers, suggest a white for sure. The deeper flavors of canned crushed tomatoes nod toward a red. I’m going to opt for a white with freshness and laserlike acidity. Any number of good Italian whites will do the trick, from north to south and points in between. Escaping the tyranny of regional and ethnic pairings, I’d like to suggest a good aligoté from Burgundy, which has the liveliness, texture and presence to enhance this dish. If you prefer a red, no problem. Look for reds that have the same qualities as the whites, without tannins or oakiness. A simple barbera or Valpolicella would be ideal. ERIC ASIMOV
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