Pasta from the pantry

Even the most enthusiastic cooks face days when 5 p.m. rolls around and they still haven’t the faintest idea what they’re making for dinner.  The refrigerator is bare, there’s no time to go to the store and ordering take-out is not in the budget.

That’s when I turn to the pantry.  Mine always holds at least one package of spaghetti, a can of diced tomatoes and a can of clams (I like Geisha brand) for this simple but satisfying pasta.  Oh yes, there’s always a hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano in the fridge, too.  A head of garlic waits in a terra cotta jar on the counter and a big bottle of extra virgin olive oil stands in the cupboard.  If I’m lucky, there will be fresh Italian parsley in the crisper but it’s not absolutely essential.

The recipe for this emergency dish originally came from an old copy of  “The Romagnoli’s Table” (Little Brown, 1975) that I picked up at a used book store.  Since this was the only recipe that caught my fancy, the book was recycled long ago.  Now, I’ve been making the pasta by rote for so long that I’m not even sure how close it comes to the original anymore.

What I like about this dish is that the sauce comes together in the time it takes to boil the pasta. The bright flavors of the tomato play a pleasing counterpoint to the briny clams and salty parmesan.

Nothing is wasted – the tomato juices and clam juices form the basis of the sauce.  They cook down in a little garlic-infused olive oil before the clams are tossed in at the last minute.  The good news, too, is that clams are listed as a best choice on the Seafood Watch list.

Lately, I’ve been making this dish with bucatini rather than the usual spaghetti or linguine.  The pasta looks like thick strands of spaghetti, but it’s formed like straws with a hole in the center of the strands, and the texture is delightfully chewy.

With a couple of cans in the pantry and this pasta in your repertoire, you never have to worry about what’s for dinner.

Serves 4

1 pound bucatini, spaghetti or linguine
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 10-ounce can whole baby clams
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, no salt added
¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
Coarsely ground black pepper
Freshly grated parmesan

Put a large pot of generously salted water on the stove to boil.   When pasta water is almost ready to bubble vigorously, heat olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet.  Drop pasta into the boiling water and stir to separate the strands.  It should take about 9 minutes to cook al dente.

While pasta cooks, brown garlic cloves in the oil, being careful not to burn them.  Remove cloves and discard.  Drain clams, reserving the juice. Add clam juice and tomatoes with their juice to the pan.  (Be careful, the oil tends to spatter when liquids are added.)  Raise heat to medium high and let juices come to a low boil and thicken.  When bucatini is almost done, reduce heat on skillet to low, add drained clams and warm.

Remove pasta from boiling water with tongs, shaking off excess water, and add to sauce in skillet.  Toss pasta in sauce for a couple of minutes to coat, then turn off heat.  Add parsley and coarsely ground pepper and toss.   Transfer to a large, shallow bowl and serve, passing parmesan for diners to add as desired.  (Although Italians don’t serve cheese with seafood pastas, this would never qualify as an authentic dish.  So, I say, go for it if you like it.)

Inspired by “The Romagnoli’s Table”

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