Clams and pasta in 'crazy water' make for an easy meal

Halved cherry tomatoes and fresh basil finish off a summery take on spaghetti and clams.
Halved cherry tomatoes and fresh basil finish off a summery take on spaghetti and clams.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - As the long-awaited summer draws near, our moods change, and so do our menus: Everything lightens up.

We swop creamy potatoes for crisp, bright greens; hearty winter squashes for summer ones; and beefy braises for meats straight off the grill. But, in addition to all the things we've been missing - the luscious salads, fruits, vegetables and herbs - our best meals ought to pull from the sea.

Lobster, shrimp, crab meat and soft-shell crabs; salmon, sea bass, cod and snapper: All of these creatures are highly suited for summer dining. But, on the East Coast, clams are especially summery.

I've long wanted to spend a month or two on the beach with a rake and a bucket, clamming every day and eating my bounty every night. A big pot of steamed clams would always be welcome, whether flavoured with garlic and parsley, or with lemon grass and chiles.

I would make chowders of every sort, paella with clams and, of course, a lot of clam pasta, perhaps in a light, tomatoey broth, or "acqua pazza".

Many Italian recipes call for simmering fish and shellfish in acqua pazza, or crazy water. It's not a loony notion, just a quick way to make a small amount of tasty broth, something obviously more flavourful than poaching seafood in plain water.

Every cook prepares crazy water differently, but most recipes involve olive oil, tomato and a pinch of crushed red pepper. Garlic, parsley, capers, lemon and even smashed anchovy could also be part of the mixture.

It's the perfect medium to simply and quickly cook fish fillets or shrimp. It takes only a few minutes to put together, and the cooking liquid, conveniently, is also the brothlike sauce. But the spicy broth can be put to good use, too, in a stellar casual dish of clams and spaghetti. You suck the clams from their shells. You attack all the savoury juices with soup spoons and chunks of crusty bread.

For a finishing flourish and to give the dish an even more summery feel, I add basil leaves and colourful fresh cherry tomatoes, halved and drizzled with olive oil and salt. A tomato salad topping for spaghetti and steamed clams? Well, call me crazy.

And to Drink …

For those who instinctively grasp whether a white or red wine is best, this dish poses problems. Clams and fresh tomatoes, abetted by spicy peppers, suggest a white for sure.

The deeper flavours of canned crushed tomatoes nod toward a red. I'm going to opt for a white with freshness and laserlike acidity. Any number of good Italian whites will do the trick, from north to south and points in between.

Escaping the tyranny of regional and ethnic pairings, I'd like to suggest a good aligoté from Burgundy, which has the liveliness, texture and presence to enhance this dish. If you prefer a red, no problem. Look for reds that have the same qualities as the whites, without tannins or oakiness. A simple barbera or Valpolicella would be ideal. - ERIC ASIMOV

Clams and Spaghetti With Spicy Tomato Broth

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Total time: 40 minutes

INGREDIENTS

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion, diced

1/2 cup chopped green garlic shoots or 2 tsps minced garlic

1 bay leaf

2 or 3 medium hot fresh red peppers, such as Dutch or Fresno, cut into 0.5cm slices, or 1/2 tsp dried red-pepper flakes

1 large thyme sprig

Salt and pepper

2 cups crushed tomatoes (canned is fine)

1 cup dry white wine

1.8 - 2.2kg small clams, such as manila or cherrystones

453g spaghetti

2 cups red and yellow cherry tomatoes, halved

1 Tbs thinly sliced chives

2 Tbs roughly chopped parsley

Handful of basil leaves

METHOD

1. Set a large pot of water on a back burner over medium-high heat, covered, so it is ready and boiling when it's time to cook the pasta.

2. Put a wide Dutch oven or deep heavy-bottomed skillet with a lid over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil. When the oil is hot, add onion, and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes, until softened and lightly colored.

3. Stir in chopped green garlic, bay leaf, hot pepper and thyme sprig. Stir to coat and let sizzle. Season mixture generously with salt and pepper. Add tomatoes and wine, and bring mixture to a brisk simmer, stirring. Simmer 5 minutes, then taste and adjust seasoning. Thin with water if necessary: You don't want it to be too thick.

4. Salt the pasta water and cook the spaghetti at a rapid boil until al dente - usually a minute or 2 less than instructions on package.

5. Add clams to Dutch oven or skillet, turn heat to high and put on the lid. Stir clams with a large spoon a couple of times (to help heat disperse evenly) and replace lid. They should take 5 to 6 minutes to open. Once all clams are open, turn off heat and leave to rest, covered, for a few minutes.

6. Drain pasta and, using tongs, divide among 4 to 6 bowls. Using a large slotted spoon or tongs, top pasta with an equal amount of clams. Ladle all remaining broth in the pot over each serving.

7. Season halved cherry tomatoes with salt and a little olive oil. Spoon seasoned cherry tomatoes over top of the bowls.

8. Sprinkle with chives, parsley and basil leaves. Serve.