Do the clam. Do the clam. Grab your barefoot baby by the hand.
It’s not often I get to quote Elvis Presley especially from one of his worst movies (it was Clambake). But it’s not often I get to do clams. Not in Mexico anyway. Not until recently anyway.
I spend about half of my life in Toronto. I spend about half of my life in San Miguel de Allende. For half of my life I eat clams about once a week. For the other half of my life I eat clams about never. So I decided instead of just griping and grumbling about it, I would do something about it.
I’ve had the same seafood supplier for seven maybe eight years in San Miguel. Miguel Hidales and his company, La Isla. Miguel has sourced some very good mussels. Miguel has sourced some of the best oysters I’ve ever eaten. But could Miguel find me clams?
First I better know what I wanted. Because there are east coast clams and there are west coast clams. There are manilas, venus, mahogany, hardshells, softshells and cockles. There are cherrystones, chocolates and razors. There are surf clams and ocean quahogs. There are little necks, golden necks and top necks…though I can’t imagine being able to locate a clam’s neck, even if it was wearing a tie. And then there are pasta clams, whatever they are.
The clam dish I missed most in Mexico was spaghetti alla vongole which, appropriately, Don Day’s Wife does the world’s best version of (yes, I need to score some points today). So I knew I needed small clams.
Almost all of the seafood that La Isla has shipped into San Miguel is from the West Coast. Miguel Vidales told me he could get manilas or chiones. I knew manilas well. I had no idea what chiones were. I googled them and found a photo that looked like pasta clams but also found that they averaged about 15 to the pound which is bigger than the pasta clams I know.
My choice was manila clams. They’re excellent for vongole. They average about 25 to the pound. And their meat to shell ratio is possibly the highest of any clams.
I emailed Miguel, ordered three kilos and he emailed back “done”. The clams would be arriving from Ensenada on the following Friday. I emailed six people who I thought would be hungering for clams as much as I was and invited them to dinner on the following Saturday.
On Friday morning, Miguel Vidales emailed: “Your clams have arrived.” On Saturday, I was at Mercado Sano where La Isla is located to pick up the expected treasure.
Miguel held them up for my inspection. They had been shipped dry which was fine as clams are good for over a week as long as they’re kept cool. They all looked tightly closed which means they were still alive. I was even happy with the mesh bag they came in as plastic bags are bad news for bivalves.
Dinner started with smoked marlin, also ordered from La Isla and shipped in that week, this time from Mazatlan. If you’ve never tried smoked marlin, do. It’s a little fishier than salmon but it’s a fraction of the price.
A small salad with just-picked-yesterday greens from Mercado Sano plus pepinos, pecans and dried cranberries followed and then, at last, the clams.
The smell of the sizzling bacon, mushrooms and garlic was already wafting in from the kitchen (and yes, you can put clay pots on an open flame). A cloud of steam floated over the pasta pot. Don Day’s Wife was rinsing the clams in the sink.
I cherish the color of clams. Those earthy tones of greys and beiges, oranges and yellows, blacks and browns. Almost any photograph of them is art. I would have a big print of them in our kitchen if Don Day’s Wife would let me (“If you hang up clams, I’m hanging up grandkids.”)
There were three clams that were broken. There were two that were open. Those five went into the trash. The other hundred or so clams joined the rest of the goodies in the cazuela.
The table was ready with a rainbow of colors. The hot peppers and parmesan were placed on it (and no nasty notes about combining shellfish and dairy please; even the paesano among us approved the cheese). The ready for dunking garlic bread was plated ready for sopping up the juices.
I threw a strand of spaghetti at the wall to see if it was ready. As always it didn’t stick but I’ve never known whether it should or shouldn’t. It’s just that, ever since I saw Felix do it in The Odd Couple, I haven’t been able to help myself.
I strained the spaghetti, tossed it in the supersized serving cazuela (if you wonder why we have so many, they’re almost always the prize in Mexican cooking contests), and portioned it into the dishes, making sure everyone got lots of juicy slop from the bottom of the big bowl.
A cheers to the chef and we armed ourselves with forks and spoons. The clams all had appeared to have opened. They were the essence of freshness. There was no sign of grit. The sauce was superb. The consensus was mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!
I will leave the last words to our guest with that Italian heritage, Lou Campese: “Grandma DiModugno would have approved!”
La Isla is located in Mercado Sano, Ancha de San Antonio 123, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Special orders are required about a week in advance. You can contact Miguel Vidales at email@example.com. And the recipe for that scrumptious spaghetti alla vongole is below.
Don Day’s Wife’s Spaghetti alla Vongole
454 grams bacon (1 lb.) sliced into 1 inch pieces
10 cloves garlic finely chopped
454 grams cremini mushrooms sliced
1 cup dry white wine
3 kgs. clams, rinsed. Remove any clams that have cracked shells, or which do not close when tapped.
2 tbsp. dried Italian basil
400 grams dried spaghetti (or linguine)
1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Saute bacon over medium-high heat until almost cooked. Add sliced mushrooms and continue to cook until done. Add chopped garlic and sauté until garlic is translucent.
Add white wine and dried basil and cook for two or three minutes. Add freshly ground pepper, and taste for salt – add if necessary.
Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions. Approximately five minutes before the pasta is ready, add fresh clams to bacon mixture. Tightly cover and cook over high heat. After three minutes, stir to bring opened clams to top. Tightly cover again and continue to cook for two more minutes until all or almost all clams are open.
Drain pasta. Add clam mixture to pasta and toss. Sprinkle with chopped parsley, and serve, if desired, with dried chilies and for those who do not think it is sacrilegious, shaved parmesan cheese.