If you were to do a graph–and I’m not a graph person, so you’d have to help me out here–measuring the effort you put into a dinner vs. the pleasure you get from eating it, chances are there’d be a real corollary between the work put it in and the pleasure received (see, for example, lamb merguez with eggplant jam). Every so often, though, there’s an outlier: a recipe that’s so incredibly easy, so simple to put together, it doesn’t make sense that the results should taste as good as they do, but they do. And I’d wager that of all the recipes that fit into this tiny category, the ones at the very apex of “easy to do” and “good to eat” are recipes involving mussels and clams.
The thing is, mussels and clams are not only super fast to cook, they also contribute major flavor to whatever liquid you cook them in. Beer, broth, or–my preference–white wine. All that clam juice (or liquor, as some might call it) infuses right in and that’s the most important thing to know about making clams or mussels for dinner: it’s not about the clams or mussels, it’s about soaking up all of the cooking liquid with really good bread. The bread is what fills you up but also, once saturated with the garlicky, winey, clam broth, it’s also what makes you say: “Oh my God, this is so good.”
Also? Clams and mussels are incredibly versatile. You can take this dinner in so many directions. For me, though, I almost always start with a glug of of olive oil, heated up, and then I add a sliced red onion and let it cook with some salt for a bit. Then I add 3 cloves of sliced garlic and a dried chile de Arbol:
Once the garlic is fragrant and just starting to turn golden, I add a big glass (about a cup) of dry white wine (it’ll sizzle, stand back!). This should also be the wine you’re drinking while cooking and, later, while eating the clams. In this case, because it just came in my CSA, I also added all of the kernels from two ears of the freshest, sweetest, sweet corn you can imagine. Cut ’em right off the cob with a sharp knife and in they go, along with about ten clams that you soak for 30 minutes in cold water with a little corn starch to help draw out any grit; just lift the clams right out and rinse them off:
Sprinkle with a little salt, turn the heat to high, cover, and wait about a minute or so. At that point, check; if the clams have opened, remove them right away. They’re done (I learned that trick from Renee Erickson).
Once you’ve removed all the clams, taste the liquid (and the corn) and adjust for salt. If you want to gild the lily, you can add a pat of butter here too; that’s a good thing to do if you’re serving this for company. Since it was just for me, I left the butter out and, instead, poured the broth over the clams in a bowl and topped it with lots of shredded basil.
This is a terrific summery dish that takes longer to eat than it does to make. So what are you waiting for? Get some graph paper, prove that I’m right mathematically, and once you’re convinced go out and get some clams (and some really good bread). You’ll be eating pretty in no time.