Sunday, December 24, 2017

What's For Dinner On Christmas Eve?

Many folks have their feast on Christmas Day. Often centered by a ham, or turkey, maybe a goose, with all the fixin's and plenty of desserts. In my family we usually have a turkey feast on Thanksgiving, and a nice glazed ham feast for Christmas Day. Many of the side dishes are the same, but with more cookies, chocolates, and desserts after Santa comes than we have at the harvest celebration.

Then there are a lot of folks, especially here in New York where there are so many families with Italian roots, who enjoy a grand meal on Christmas Eve. Being a day of fasting for Catholics, the meal is centered on seafood, while meat dishes are avoided altogether. Traditionally known as The Feast of Seven Fishes, these days you might find many more than just seven dishes being served through the evening, leading up to the celebration of Midnight Mass.

As many times as I may forget I am not Italian, I have to be content to just have a lot of Italian-American friends and extended family. I am not particularly religious either, in an organized fashion anyway. So usually I spend a quiet evening at home with my closest family, relaxing. Though we are not Catholic, we usually try to catch Midnight Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. (That link there should be available tonight for livestrameing straight from their website. You can also catch it on television as well, or livestreaming too, from PIX11 who have also rekindled the tradition of the Yule Log afterward just in time for hot cocoa.)

Here is the dilemma now. What do I make for dinner on Christmas Eve? I suppose any old thing would do, but I want something a little more special to mark the night. Something not too fancy or difficult since I will be cooking all day tomorrow, but something filling that makes it feel like Christmas. So why not go with the Catholic seafood theme? I've got it! Pasta with clam sauce! So tasty, yet simple, easy and quick. Here's how I like to make it:

Pasta With White Clam Sauce

Pick your pasta. Traditionally you always hear of linguine with clam sauce, which is a fine choice, or maybe even some spaghetti or fettuccine but long cuts are not your only option. After being stuck with only a box of medium shells one night, I found it to actually be just as good, if not preferable, being easier to eat with a just a spoon and getting more clam in every bite. I find thicker sauces to be best for long cuts of pasta, a thinner sauce like this is great with those sea-shell shapes.

Now let's get this sauce going here. Pour in plenty of olive oil to a saute pan and melt in an equal portion of butter. About a stick of butter usually for a box or so of pasta. Not too hot now, olive oil burns at a lower temp than other oils.

Have a good sized onion chopped and ready to go into the butter and oil. Let them sweat out a little then add in two big mounds of chopped garlic. Fresh garlic is obviously going to be more flavorful, but I find it a lot easier to keep a big jar of chopped garlic in the fridge. At least two big, giant heaping tablespoons of garlic here. It's okay to let these brown a bit, but be sure not to scorch and burn the garlic or you will get a bitter taste. In a pinch, you could substitute with onion and garlic powder, which some people actually prefer.

Now this is really one of my own little tricks here. As that onion and garlic is going, I add in one of those little cans of anchovy fillets, and break them up nicely as I stir. I am sure you could use anchovy paste too, but I like adding the olive oil from the fillet can which adds a bit more anchovy flavor. Don't worry if someone hates anchovies either. You won't really taste it in the final product. It just adds a nice, rich depth of flavor overall and all the salt you will need.

Add some crushed red pepper flakes, to taste. I like my sauce to have a little kick to it. Just a dash will, again, add some more depth of flavor, where a little more will add some zip too. Don't go too crazy though, it gets spicier as it cooks, than just some dry flakes on a slice of pizza.

Now let's talk about clams. Some people prefer to be real authentic gourmet, but I find fighting with clam shells while trying to eat pasta is just a pain in the littleneck, so I use canned, rather than fresh clams. I also find keeping some canned clams in the pantry a great idea for a night when I need to make a quick easy meal, or just get bored of the same old stuff.  Chopped clams are fine, but lately I found some canned clams that are not chopped, just shucked and canned whole without the shells. (Make sure you don't try to use those smoked clams in oil.) Now another advantage to the canned clams is you don't have to go buy an extra bottle of clam juice, because the clams are canned in their own juice. The whole ones I get come in one big can, but if you are using the chopped you will want at least 3 maybe 4 of those tuna-sized-cans. Have those tins open and ready to go. Pour all the juice right in the hot pan, but reserve the actual clams. Just drain all the juices in there, and leave the actual clams aside for the moment.

Add some white wine if you have some on hand, but I usually don't have any and the sauce still comes out very tasty. The same goes for a bit of lemon juice as well at this point. It's a sort of and/or/both/neither option here. 

Let all of that simmer and reduce for a bit. The sauce will never really get "thick" but you do want it to concentrate the flavors and cook down some. I just sort of go by sight, the line where it has reduced from, the richer color. You'll have to sort of guess I suppose until you have made it a few times.

In the last few minutes, add your herbs. Fresh or dried according to what you have on hand. I like plenty of parsley, some basil, and a bit of oregano, in that order.

Finally, right in the last minute or so, toss in all your canned clams. If you did use fresh ones, you'll want to add them earlier to steam open. You just wanted the clams heated through, because overcooking will rubberize their texture pretty quick.

You should have your pasta ready to go at this point too. The timing can be a little tricky, and again, practice makes perfect as to when you should actually put the pasta on the boil. You can serve the sauce straight over the pasta, but I prefer to have my pasta just a tad underdone, then finish in another saute pan right in with some of the sauce so that it cooks right into the pasta a bit. You might also prefer to do this "per order" so to speak or per serving you intend to plate right then, and reserve some of the sauce for later. I tend do do about a half box of pasta at at time, and reserve half of the sauce for later. You don't want to try to cook too much all at once. If you are serving a few more people consider using more than one saute pan to finish off your pasta. 

Toss with your favorite sort of hard, grated, Italian cheese a few seconds before plating.

Once plated top it all off with some fresh cracked black pepper, maybe some fresh grated lemon zest, and maybe a little more parsley if you have it on hand fresh.

Serve after a nice garden salad, and alongside some golden brown butter garlic bread to sop up the leftover sauce and juices at the bottom of the dish.

All of that may sound a little long-winded and complicated, but really, this is a super-easy and quick dish to make, even for a beginner in the kitchen. So here's the real simple version:

Olive oil and butter as the base for your sauce. Chopped onion first, then chopped garlic next. Anchovy and crushed red pepper flake if you like. Plenty of clam juice. Some white wine and/or a squirt of lemon juice if you like. Simmer. Add herbs, pause, add clams. Use sauce for pasta along with some grated cheese, black pepper, and perhaps a bit of lemon zest.

Buon Appetito!

Merry Christmas!!!