There’s been some talk about the new “never-ending” pasta bowls at the Olive Garden lately. It seems the franchise is disregarding the low-carb (or the fresh and local) dietary trends of the day, and beckoning diners with even more all-you-can-eat. (My favorite crack? “When you’re here… Why are you here?“) Well, I happened to eat at the Olive Garden in New York City recently, to celebrate my friend Kara’s birthday. It was a nostalgic gag that myself and 14 other friends surprised her with, since Kara used to work at an Olive Garden when she was in high school. It was my first time dining at the establishment, and the experience left me wanting.
No, I’ve never been to the Olive Garden before this fun group experience. I recall seeing the commercials on TV growing up, and my mom once looking on and saying, “Maybe we should try that sometime” at the screen. But we never did go to the Olive Garden. It was out of the way and besides, there was a trattoria my family was very fond of right down the street in our town’s village. It was run independently by an owner and chef named Angelo. There, we’d go for quick slices of pizza after school or for great mounds of pasta served on thick, ivory dishes for family dinners. There were the Italian American staples like eggplant or chicken parm, specials like veal scallopini, but we would always order the linguine with red clam sauce—or occasionally the white. The red sauce was the best though: tangy, subtly spiced with red chili flakes, and briny from fresh clams that had just popped open in their shells. The fried calamari, too, was served with a side of that warm, chunky red sauce that we loved so much we would eat the rest of from the ramekin with a spoon. Angelo even showed my mother how to make tomato sauce (his secret was a splash of chicken stock while the hand-crushed, canned plum tomatoes and garlic were simmering), and she copied him at home ever since.
So when I arrived at the Olive Garden in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood for my friend’s birthday I thought I knew exactly what I’d be ordering. You can’t go wrong with pasta, swimming in a simple sauce with clams, I thought. Problem was, there was no pasta with clam sauce on the menu. Heck, there were no clams! I was utterly shocked. Then, my friends all had a pretty good time being shocked at me, too. ‘You’ve never been to Olive Garden before?‘ No one could believe it. Going to the Olive Garden (or any of those chain restaurants) basically meant “going out to eat” for many of them growing up. I was an outcast. Once seated at our table, I immediately swept aside the strange brochures that were planted upright in between us so we could see each other better, not realizing that they were supposed to stay there, tempting us with dessert throughout the meal. I turned the “breadsticks” upside-down and commented that they looked like madeleines. When appetizers came (we ordered practically all of them, given our large group), I couldn’t understand why breaded, fried ravioli filled with cheese would be plated on top of more white cheese sauce, and why there was such a skimpy portion of pale, soggy fried calamari in our mixed fried-foods basket.
I ended up ordering linguine with spicy tomato sauce and shrimp instead. The sauce wasn’t bad, and the shrimp were so diminutive that their meat kind of resembled the size of clams’. I guess that’s why they didn’t bother to devein the tiny, little, freezer-burned buggers. And the pasta–I had asked for linguine without looking at the menu closely—was whole wheat linguine, apparently the only type of linguine they offered in their mix-and-match menu of pasta shapes and sauces. It was also overcooked.
So I’ve been hankering to make a proper pasta with clam sauce since that excursion, and the height of tomato season in NYC seemed a good opportunity. I have so many little cherry tomatoes about to pop into pulp pellets in my home, and some squishy big tomatoes, too. So instead of going the trattoria’s route with canned, peeled plum, I made a fresh cherry (or grape) tomato sauce and then studded it with some fresh sweet corn kernels, also plentiful right now locally, too. For the clams, I looked no further than Blue Moon Fish’s seafood stand at Grand Army Plaza’s Greenmarket last weekend. There, fishmonger Mara plucked out the smallest dozen of clams for me at request.
The littler the clams, the more tender and quick to open. The little shells are also the perfect vessel for sucking down the sweet corn kernels and softened cherry tomato halves that invariably get lodged there, too. Altogether, each clam bite is a perfect burst of flavors and texture, with the sweet juice of the sea perhaps dribbling down your chin unexpectedly. This all absorbs into pasta very well, and for this dish, I stirred in some al dente bucatini, the long, thick strands with a hair’s-width hollow in the middle.
Besides clams and corn, making fresh tomato sauce for pasta is just fun, and so quick to turn out savory results. However, I like to add a squeeze of good tomato paste to the fresh tomatoes when they’re simmering in olive oil and well-crushed garlic in a pan. Sorry, Angelo, but this ultra-condensed expression of the tomato itself, without crossing veg-and-meat borders, adds savory depth as well as thickness to the sauce and I think it’s a pretty quick, easy solve for a good one whenever you’re working with fresh, runny tomatoes for a pasta. When you’re not using canned plum tomatoes, I think we can use a little boost of tomato paste without sacrificing that fresh flavor.
With or without clams, this cherry tomato and sweet corn pasta is a hit. But once added, these briny little shellfish are nostalgic bliss.
Pasta with Cherry Tomatoes, Sweet Corn & Clams
(makes 2 servings)
1/2 lb dried pasta, any type
1 ear sweet corn, shucked and kernels cut away from the cob
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 small pinch red chili flakes
1 teaspoon tomato paste
12-15 small littleneck or manila clams (or cockles)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or pot with a lid. Add the chili flakes, followed by the halved tomatoes and a sprinkle of salt. Let cook over medium-high heat, stirring, for 1-2 minutes. Add the garlic, reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5-6 minutes, or until the tomatoes have softened and oozed all their juices. Add the tomato paste and corn kernels and stir to combine.
Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil and drop in the pasta. Rinse and scrub the clams and keep at hand.
Add about 1 ladle (or half a cup) of the starchy water from the cooking pasta. Bring to a boil in the pan. Add the clams to the pan and close the lid immediately. Cook for 2-3 minutes before opening. If some of the clams are unopened, cover the lid and cook a little longer. Discard any clams that don’t open after 5 minutes.
Once the pasta is cooked al dente, drain and transfer immediately to the pan with the sauce. Toss pasta to coat, taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as desired, and serve immediately with the parsley for garnish.
(for 2 servings)
1 dozen clams: $4.00
½ lb pasta: $2.00
1 pint cherry tomatoes: $3.50
1 ear corn: $0.75
2 Tb olive oil, salt, pepper, pinch chili flakes: $0.40
2 tablespoons chopped parsley (from houseplant): $0.20
Five brownie points: It might not look like a typically healthy-schmealthy meal, but this simple pasta dish has a lot of benefits, especially thanks to clams. These small, sustainable bivalves are a good source of protein with minimal fats, and a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids. More good news for clams is that, rather than larger, more expensive seafood options like halibut or sole, there’s no mercury in these little shellfish. So what are we waiting for? Aside from clams, this dish has some antioxidants from the fresh tomatoes, fiber and potassium thanks to sweet corn, and more vitamins with a generous helping of parsley, like Vitamin K. I suggest eating a small portion of pasta in ratio to all the accouterments, to help fill you up with less starch.
Seven maple leaves: Clams are not only healthy for you, but as bivalves, good for the sea. They help filter waters and make it safer for other sea creatures, like fish, so much so that researchers have looked to them to help reduce toxins in our polluted waterways. And according to Monterey Bay Aquarium, they’re a “best choice” seafood worldwide.