“Which of the cities visited did Your Highness enjoy the most?” – Reporter
“Each, in its own way, was unforgettable. It would be difficult to…Rome! By all means, Rome. I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live.” – Princess Ann – Roman Holiday
The television set is perched precariously on a make-shift table. Blankets – well-traveled and lovingly clung to across two continents – adorn the living room floor. Each fold and crease meticulously smoothed out, more than making up for any lack of furnishings. The dull brown sliding balcony door perfectly frames the lush green maples swaying rhythmically from side to side, sleepily whispering in hushed tones the arrival of an early Vancouver Summer. Green – everywhere you look, it’s all green. But none of this beauty registers. We sit with our eyes affixed to the TV set. Anticipation and expectations running high. These are the years predating the domination of the World Wide Web. But at the time this antiquated box of moving pictures and sound is our only link to the most important event of the summer – of the year.
World Cup Soccer 1982 Finals.
Italy vs. West Germany.
Growing up, a big pot of water was a permanent fixture on our stove. Always standing at attention – ready to come up to a boil On any given day this pot would either serve as the conduit for a fragrant platter of rice (with crunchy Tahdig of course) or a bowl of perfectly cooked al dente pasta. And depending on which was being served you could always find its lover – a companion pot lounging right next to it, slowly, dreamily simmering the day away. A stew of some kind for the rice, or some type of sauce for the pasta.
Spaghetti alle Vongole – Spaghetti with Clams is a staple and a favorite in our house. Just the mention of it will send the girls and Drew into a spirited Vongole dance. I prefer my Spaghetti alle Vongole in Rosso – in a red sauce. Just like my Baba – my dad – does. The best Spaghetti alle Vongole I’ve ever had was some years ago in San Remo. Baba, my step-mother Kumi and I had just stepped off the train at about 10pm – ravenous. A local at the train station recommended a small family-owned restaurant, and suffice to say it was one of those forever life-altering meals. I have been trying to recreate that Spaghetti alle Vongole in Rosso ever since.
Vongole – Clams
The clam sauce here is very basic with few ingredients. So it goes without saying that the best quality ingredients will make all the difference. Fresh clams being the most important. I like to use small clams – manila clams or cockles. I buy my clams at the market the day I am going to be preparing them and I make sure to ask for the ones that are closed tight (if they are open they are not alive and cannot be consumed). Sometimes when you get home some may open up slightly – if so gently tap one clam against another. If they close up they are ok to use, but if any stay open then discard them. As soon as you get home gently put the clams in a large bowl and fill with fresh water and add salt to it. You want to add enough salt to make it like seawater. This process allows the clams to release the sand trapped in them. Put the bowl of clams in the fridge (uncovered) for at least 30 mins or until you are ready to use. When ready, gently lift the clams out of the water so you don’t disturb the sand that has settled at the bottom and give them a quick rinse. Clams cook fairly quickly and over-cooking them turns them tough and rubbery, so make sure you scoop them out once they have opened up. Discard any that don’t.
Typically this calm sauce is made with fresh, in-season tomatoes. But I make mine with good quality jarred tomatoes like these, since in-season tomatoes are limited. But more importantly since the girls like a smooth tomato sauce, no chunks of cooked tomato Mama!, I puree the tomatoes first. But you can cook them whole and gently break them down as they simmer if you like. And taking a cue from a beloved fish stew called Ciuppin I like to add plenty of garlic and anchovies to the sauce with a sprinkle of fennel seeds to liven it all up. Please, please, please don’t skip the anchovies here. The anchovies delicately break down and melt into the olive oil and become one with the garlic – creating a paste of sorts that adds a fantastic depth of flavor to the whole sauce.
Over the years we have been much more mindful of how much white pasta we eat. Most of the time trading it in for healthier alternatives. There are so many options now beyond whole wheat – a variety of grains (spelt, einkorn, etc). One that we enjoy most is a quinoa based pasta which is gluten-free and which I feel comes the closest in replicating the texture and taste of a regular white pasta. But as is the case with our white rice consumption there is a time and place for the “real” stuff. And this dish is one of those times when we break out the tried and true to our hearts – white semolina pasta. You can use regular spaghetti. I usually like to use a thinner noodle like linguini or spaghettini – thin spaghetti. Cheese (parmesan/pecorino) is not under any circumstances served with a seafood based pasta. And now please avert your eyes momentarily if you are a traditionalist when it comes to this hard fast rule because – I like a sprinkling of parmesan on my Spaghetti alle Vongole. There. I said it. Now let’s move on.
Dino Zoff – the team captain and goalie – runs the course of the stadium – the trophy held proudly high above his head. Paolo Rossi and the rest of the team clad in their blue jerseys – Gli Azzurri – run right along with him. The stadium sounds as if it’s about to burst – as do our hearts, an ocean away. We storm our tiny balcony – wooden spoons, pots and pans in hand, loudly banging one against the other, confounding our very nice Canadian neighbors’ impression of us even more. Adding to the general mystery of exactly where we have beamed down from – what with the enticing and exotic aromas always wafting down the hall. Our cheers, hoots and hollers startle and shake up the maple trees. World Cup fever has yet to catch in this corner of the world. But on our little corner of the balcony – our makeshift Roman fountain – our hearts are alive and on fire. And for the first time in two months since our plane took off from Fiumicino airport – that big lump that seemed eternally lodged deep in our throats is set free. And the tears flow freely.
Do you have World Cup fever? Who will you be cheering for? And more importantly, what will you be cooking to celebrate? Forza Italia!
SPAGHETTI ALLE VONGOLE IN ROSSO – SPAGHETTI IN A RED CLAM SAUCE
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 large cloves garlic
5 anchovies packed in olive oil
1/8 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 – 18oz jar of whole peeled tomatoes with their juice, pureed in a blender or food mill (optional, for a smooth sauce)
2 pounds live manila clams, rinsed scrubbed and soaked in salt water
1 pound spaghettini, or linguini
1- Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium/low heat. Add the garlic and anchovies. Add the fennel seeds by crushing them between your hands. Stir and cook until the anchovies start breaking down and melting into the oil. Take care not to burn the garlic, turn heat down if necessary. 3-4 minutes.
2- Add the tomatoes and their juices. If the tomatoes are not pureed gently break them down in the pot. Add 1/2 teaspoon sea salt and pepper to taste. Stir and cook uncovered at a gentle simmer for 35 minutes – 1 hour. The longer it sits and simmers the more flavorful it will be. Adjust seasoning as needed.
3- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the spaghettini and cook until al dente. No mushy pasta please!
4- As soon as you start cooking the pasta add the clams to the sauce. Gently lift the clams out of the bowl of salt water and rinse them. Gently add them to the sauce. Cover the pot and turn the heat up to medium. Cook the clams until they open. About 4-6 minutes. Don’t overcook the clams. Discard any clams that don’t open. The clams will release a lot of their juices to the sauce. Once the clams have cooked you can take them out of the sauce and turn up the heat on the sauce to reduce it until it is slightly thicker. (I usually don’t have the patience for this though and find the sauce thickens up when I add it to the hot pasta.)
5- Drain the pasta and transfer to a large serving bowl. Carefully add the sauce and mix until well combined. Serve immediately.