Sunday, August 25, 2013

Spaghetti alle vongole

I think I’ve had enough of my little expat kitchen. I don’t mean this one here of course, but my actual little expat kitchen, the room in my apartment that is small, bursting at the seams with things I have accumulated over the years, the kitchen that drives me crazy because I If anyone but me dares to take even a single plate out of one of my cupboards, they’ll most certainly end up with a dozen other plates on their heads. You need to be dexterous and somewhat of a magician to handle the overcrowded chaos that is my kitchen.

Also, we rent our apartment, and in most cases here in the Netherlands, big city apartments have small, nay, tiny kitchens that most of the time come with the electrical appliances, which is not a good thing. No one who rents buys the major appliances, which means that you get stuck with some that may be old, dysfunctional and, well, impractical. Such is the case with mine.

The oven is too small, too old and heats in patches. The refrigerator is small, with a rickety shelf (that’s kind of my fault) and a tiny freezer. The gas stove is, you guessed it, small, and for the last couple of weeks the bigger gas ring is not working (that’s not my fault). I may have some fancy pots and pans but I can’t use them.

This situation has taken away my will to cook. For this and various other reasons, we have been thinking of moving for a long time now, but it’s not that easy because I can’t find an apartment with a kitchen that I like. Yes, it’s come to this, the kitchen is the only room in a house that matters to me.

Anyway, I could go on and on about this for a looong time, so let’s get down to what’s important here. The food. I only needed the two gas rings in my kitchen that work for this, so I put them to good use and made a fantastic spaghetti alle vongole, that classic Italian, or Neapolitan to be exact, dish that truly is breathtakingly delicious in its simplicity.

The most important ingredient is of course the vongole (clams), and you need to buy them fresh, don’t use canned or bottled ones, unless you want to ruin the dish. The sweet, supple vongole, with that fresh, intense aroma of the sea is what this dish is all about. As for the rest of the ingredients, you most probably already have them in your kitchen; spaghetti, garlic, olive oil, white wine, dried red chilli flakes, fresh parsley.

As soon as we sat on the table, I couldn’t stop devouring the plump, briny flesh of the bivalves, swiftly twirling the spaghetti around my fork, slurping on any stray strand that had the audacity to resist getting into my mouth, dunking my bread into the aromatic sauce with the light acidity from the white wine, with the chili that tingled my palate and the garlic, present but not overpowering.

This ultimate taste of summer, just before its unofficial end, was exactly what I needed and it made me realize that I may not have the kitchen of my dreams, but what I create in it can be, at times, dreamy.

Spaghetti alle Vongole in bianco (Spaghetti with Clams in a white sauce)

The Italians prepare this dish in two ways: a) in rosso, meaning in a red (tomato) sauce and b) in bianco, meaning in a white sauce without tomato. I prefer the second version of the dish as in my opinion, tomatoes overpower the flavor of the little mollusks.
By the way, the broth-like juices are essential in the dish, so make sure to have some bread to soak them all up.

This dish is easy but also a bit tricky. The spaghetti need to be cooked al dente, the vongole should be just cooked and not overcooked otherwise they’ll become rubbery, and the bringing together of the two needs good timing. Also, the correct cleaning of the vongole is important (in the recipe I explain in detail how to do it).

Oh and something else, spaghetti alle vongole is never topped off with cheese. If you insist on adding cheese, I will turn a blind eye, but don't let any Italians see you.

Yield: 4 main-course servings

1 kg fresh, live vongole (palourdes / small clams)
400 g spaghetti (I used De Cecco no12)
4 plus 1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for finishing the dish
2 garlic cloves, minced
¼ tsp dried chilli flakes
250 ml dry white wine (I used Pinot Grigio)
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper

Special equipment: large bowl, large and deep frying pan with lid


Cleaning the vongole
Vongole should be alive when you buy them. You can store them in the fridge for 1 day before you use them. Place them inside a bowl while they’re still inside the net (they’re usually sold wrapped in small nets) and you can loosely cover them with a plastic bag. Just make sure you make holes in the bag for the air to circulate.

When you want to prepare them for cooking, you need to clean them. The vongole have sand inside and if not purged, the dish will be sandy and grainy. For the vongole to purge the sand, they need to be put in salted water for a few hours. The vongole will open up, take in the clean water from one side and purge the sand from the other.

Remove them from the net (or any other packaging), rinse them well under cold running water, checking if their shells are clean. If not, rub them with your hands or a soft brush to remove any dirt. Transfer them to a large bowl, add enough water to cover them and add 3-4 Tbsp salt. Stir them around with your hands and cover the bowl with a dark-colored tea towel (the vongole open when it’s dark) and leave the bowl in your kitchen, somewhere shady, not in direct sunlight. Leave them like that to purge the sand for 3 to 5 hours, depending how much time you have, and then remove each vongole from the bowl. You’ll notice that the water is now dirty. Discard any vongola that has a broken shell and keep the ones that are tightly closed. If you find any that are open, tap them gently and if they close after a few seconds, keep them, otherwise discard them because they’re dead. Place the vongole in a clean bowl until ready to use, which should be soon.

Cook the spaghetti
Boil the spaghetti in salted boiling water until cooked al dente (to the tooth) or to your liking, stirring often so they don’t stick to one another.

Cook the vongole
While the spaghetti is cooking, in a large frying pan add 4 Tbsp of olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add the garlic and the chilli flakes and sauté for 1 minute, being careful not to burn the garlic. It will become very bitter if you do. Add the wine, turn heat on to high and once the wine begins to bubble, add the vongole, stir well and put on the lid. Boil/steam the vongole for about 3 minutes until their shells have just opened, shaking the pan from time to time. Do not overcook them as they’ll become rubbery and lose their flavor. Remove pan from the heat and ideally at this point the spaghetti should be ready. Strain them and add them to your vongole, add some black pepper and 1 Tbsp of olive oil, and mix well. Give it a taste to see if it needs any salt. The vongole have that natural salty quality from the sea, so most probably you won't have to add any salt.

Serve immediately into bowls, sprinkle with some extra black pepper, parsley and a little olive oil to finish.
In case you find any vongole that haven’t opened, discard them.

Enjoy with some bread and white wine. Pinot Grigio is an excellent choice.


  1. gorgeous, Magda. The sign of a true chef is her ability to work in any kind of kitchen and still make delicious food.

    I love vongole, and used to go clamming with my cousins on Long Island, New York. We would make this simple luscious dish in a similar fashion.

    Also, great tips on how to clean the clams and purge the sand.

  2. The same problems with me)) I mean a too small kitchen...

    "...the kitchen is the only room in a house that matters to me..."

    For me too))

    Magda, I admire you very, very much!


  3. Magda - I am, as always, I'm awe of all you can do in your tiny Expat Kitchen! I hope you and S. can find something bigger that you like!

    This pasta dish is a favorite of mine nd I have never made it at home, and I can rarely eat it out because of the garlic. Now I can do it at home with shallots! Thanks! ~ David

  4. Dutch Kitchens can be a challenge and it can be so hard to find one that you like - I remember the problems well. My last kitchen (in the UK as it happens) had no more than a chopping board worth of preparation space and an awful cooker.

    I hope you find something that suits soon, in the meantime I do love reading your recipes.

  5. I love that food! In Portugal is very commom to eat clam Bulhão Pato style, which is quite similar to the ingredients used in this recipe. I always cook pasta to mik in the clam sauce. Try using fresh coriander instead of parsley, it tastes divine.

    Plus, I totally understand that thing with small kitchens. At least mine has new appliances :)

  6. Your kitchen is just making you a more creative cook and getting you ready for retirement in the woods (cabincooking.blogspot?). I feel the same way about my kitchen and cannot wait to get out of here (only a few more weeks!). Your clams are beautiful! I am with you on the white sauce too. So delicious.

  7. Vongole pasta always reminds me of being on holidays! We don't get it much here and I always tend to have it overseas when I'm having a wonderful time. Oh yes, a small kitchen is quite a challenge! You have my sympathies :)

  8. Magda, your pasta alle vongole looks like perfection - one of my favorite dishes!
    I know what you mean about the kitchen being the only room in the house/apartment that matters. I live in mine. Amazing that you cook all of this beauty is such a small (and not always functioning) space. I'm all the more impressed!

  9. whoa! first you gave me a heart attack as I thought you meant you'd had enough of the blog (a resounding "Noooooohh!!" went through my head). And then you made me drool with the description of how the dish tasted to you, chilli tingles 'n' all.
    Now I have to recuperate from these physical reactions! Thanks for always stimulating my mental and physical palate with your posts.

  10. Looks tasty. Can't wait to try it. Thanks for the tips on how to clean the clams. Any idea if soaking in salt water would work with mussels as well?

  11. Wow, beautiful vongole! I've never tried cooking with any sort of clams, but this pasta looks like a good reason to start...not to mention the way you made it sound through narrative!
    Time for "My Enormous Expat Kitchen!"

  12. Nancy — thank you so much!

    Xenia — thanks Xenia. Having a small kitchen yourself you must know how difficult it is.

    David — you have to make it at home. I'm sure you'll love it. Just leave out the garlic, shallot sound like a great substitute!

    Ersatz Expat — I hope I find something good too, but I kind of given up hope. Every apartment we see has an even tinier kitchen than the one I have now. Fingers crossed.

    Ondina Maria — sorry Maria but i hate coriander! I can't stand the flavor. I can't live without parsley though, such a staple in Greek cuisine!

    Banana Wonder — lol!

    Lorraine — thanks! :)

    erin — thank you. I try to do my best, I love cooking so much but it is so frustrating at times to function in a small kitchen. I'm glad you liked the dish!

    madelief — :) No, I love my little space on the internet too much to abandon it! Thank you for reading!

    Sofi — mussels tend not to have grit in them. Click on the How-to's and Tips section on the sidebar and you'll find a post on how to properly clean mussels. Hope it helps!

    Irina — hehe I don't think it'll happen any time soon. :)

  13. I first tasted this dish on the island of Salina. It was so incredibly good I've been afraid to even attempt making it myself, but your post is enticing me to give it a try.

  14. Spaghetti alle vongole is by far one of my favorite pasta dishes, has always been since I was a child. I know what you mean about rented apartments and kitchens. I have had many of those. I was lucky to find an apartment with a large kitchen the last time, but the downside is that it was empty and we had to buy a kitchen (thank goodness for Ikea!). Seeing the good side of yours, at least you have a gas stove... that is quite a luxury in the Nordic countries, no?