Usually around this time of year, you could find me huddled over a massive cast iron skillet teeming with butter, faithfully executing my duty to my family to make Christmas crab cakes. Now, a plague is preventing that from happening, but it’s not going to stop me—stop us—from having a delicious holiday meal. We must improvise. We must make spicy clam pasta.

Why spicy clam pasta? Its briny, garlicky, fortifying charm is comforting without being too decadent, and the ingredients are easy to obtain. Plus, you can heat up leftovers knowing that you won’t have to feign outrage at the absolute dingus who heated up friggin CLAM PASTA in the company microwave can you believe the idiot who would...

A meal for two in under an hour requires:

  • Half a 16 oz. box of linguine (or spaghetti or bucatini or whatever your pleasure)
  • One 14.5 oz can of whole tomatoes
  • One 6.5 oz can of diced clams (I like Cento, because the label doesn’t state where the clams are from, and I can pretend they’re dug up by a grizzled fisherman in Maine)
  • 1 bottle of white white with lots of minerality
  • 4 shallots
  • 6-7 cloves of garlic (this isn’t a game)
  • Lots of red pepper flakes
  • Dash of basil
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Olive oil
  • Snacking olives
  • Water
  • 1 bunch of jaunty-looking parsley to remind you of the vitality and naivete you had just 12 months ago

Look at how happy this parsley looks!

First, turn on WQXR. It’s like taking everything else that happened that day, and drop-kicking it past the velvet rope outside the door of your 6th floor walk-up. It’s that good. They even have a dedicated holiday station, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Pour yourself a taste of the white wine. Ignore the blurry photos of the cookies your mom is texting you (“trying a new cookie this year!!! yummm!!!”), peel and slice the shallots, and coarsely chop the garlic.

Get a medium-sized saucepan ready over medium heat. Finding this green one on the curb along 6th Avenue a few months back is one of the highlights of my year. I regret not taking its siblings that had also been left out, but I was doing my best not to be greedy.

Damn this is a nice free pan.

Give the pan a solid, sloppy, 2-second pour of olive oil, then toss in the garlic and shallots, saving a pinch of the garlic for later. Add a big pinch of salt and a few grinds of the pepper mill. Survey your domain, swish your wine, and let Jeff Spurgeon tell you about some old-ass music. Sensual!

Before I got COVID back in April (appropriately, as I was writing a blog post about ritualistically freaking out about getting COVID), the smell of garlic and shallots was a savory treat, one of the many joys of cooking. But the virus knocked something out of alignment in my nostrils, and now they kind of smell sickly sweet, like fleshy decay. I have been trying to re-train myself to smell them the old way by using lots of them whenever I can. So far, it hasn’t worked.

While the garlic and shallots are cooking, open the can of clams. When the garlic is toasted and the shallots are slightly browned, pour a solid 1 second’s worth of clam juice into the mix.

The garlic, shallots, clam juice, white wine, red pepper, all reducing down, growing powerful.

Some people, I am told, don’t want their clam pasta to be “too clammy,” and will either omit this step or just add a dash of that sweet, sweet juice. This is fine, but also: what do you have to lose? If not now, when?

After the juice hits, give this mixture another round of grinds from the mill, followed by a torrent of red pepper. Just fling it in with abandon, use at least a dozen shakes.

Now add ⅓ a cup of the white wine, and reduce it down by at least half, at least until it doesn’t smell so strongly of booze.

I love you, Nanny Ann.

How did I come into such a wealth of red pepper flakes, you ask? They were my grandmother’s. After she died in 2016, my aunts and I were going through her kitchen to salvage what we could. Did I need a 15 gallon drum of red pepper flakes? Not really, and neither did she. But it makes me happy that a piece of her is here, in my kitchen with me. She was a spicy lady.

Once the wine mixture has been reduced down, add around a half-cup of water (more if you enjoy a thinner sauce). Now open your can of tomatoes, and squeeze them into a pulp with your fist, one by one, feeling the juice seep out of your knuckles like bloody tears. Satisfying. More salt, more pepper, and a dash of basil. Turn the heat to low, and let this cook down for around 25 to 30 minutes.

Get it all out, leave nothing behind, spatter your walls with the blood of the fruit.

At this point, you might note that this recipe bears a passing resemblance to some other, more viral recipes. And that’s fine. But mine has clams. Here, have some more wine.

You only really NEED two burners, you know.

Start heating up your pasta water (don’t forget the big pinch of salt) and coarsely chopping your parsley. Toss a few snacking olives into the parsley mix. Add the pasta to the water once it starts boiling. Someday I’ll have enough burners to cook with two large pots at the same time, so I won’t have to break long pasta in half into a smaller pot, but I can’t really complain.

When your pasta hits the water, toss your can of clams into the sauce (assuming you have drained the rest of the juice, or added it, I won’t tell).

The clams arrive to the party.

With the pasta done, splash a bit of the pasta water into your sauce, for its binding properties and for good luck, and then drain it.

Normally, if you are eating with a group, some people will raise their voices to prevent the cook from mixing the pasta with the sauce.

"Yes...Ha Ha Ha...YES!"

Know Your Meme

“Shouldn’t we be able to determine how much sauce we get?” these “friends” will say.

While this sounds like a perfectly reasonable argument, these people are either fools or sauce-hounds. You want the pasta to soak up the gravy (yes, that is a technical term) as much as humanly possible, and that requires tossing these sticks into their clammy hot tub. There’s no substitute—your tiny bowl isn’t good enough for it to work on an individual basis. I’m getting upset typing this.

Luckily, you’re not eating with a group this year. Toss the pasta in, add the parsley/olive/garlic mixture, and give it all a robust stirring. You’re home.

Usually it’s best to have some sort of steamed green with this clam pasta, but these are unusual times, so don’t worry about it. Merry Christmas.