Assemble the following ingredients before starting the sauce:
2 tablespoons light olive oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves, sliced razor-thin (“Please refer to jail scene in ‘Goodfellas,’” says Bell.)
Pinch red chili flakes (use 2 fingers for medium, 3 fingers for hot)
1 pound fresh, scrubbed littleneck clams (“If you can’t get ‘em, read on,” says Bell.)
2 cans high-quality, drained clams, juice reserved (“You can’t have too many clams.”)
½ cup dry white wine, such as sauvignon blanc or albarino (or whatever dry white wine you prefer)
1 cup chicken broth, unsalted or low salt
4 tablespoons good butter (may reduce for dietary purposes)
For the pasta:
½ pound spaghetti, brass cut like Rustichella d’Abruzzo brand or a dry egg dough linguine (tagliarelle), like Cipriani brand
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt, to season pasta water
Make the sauce:
Add light olive oil, shallots, garlic and chili flakes to a wide, 12-inch or 14-inch sauté pan. Turn on stove to low, then slowly bring the heat up to medium.
(Note: Against traditional cooking advice, Bell adds the aromatics to the cold oil and pan, then turns on the stove and gently brings the heat up to medium. “I believe that you get better flavor extraction from the aromatics. Plus, for a novice cook, it gives you a better time buffer [so you don’t burn the garlic].”)
When the aromatics are golden brown, add the fresh clams (if using) and deglaze with the white wine, covering to pot immediately to help steam open the clams. Once they have all opened, remove to a plate with a slotted spoon and keep warm to the side.
Add the drained canned clams and the chicken broth, half of the reserved clam juice and the butter. Taste the broth to measure the brine level. If it is not too briny for you, add the rest of the juice.
Season with fresh ground black pepper and sea salt (go light here because of the brine). Let the mixture come to a boil and thicken just a touch – about two minutes. Turn heat to low to add the boiled pasta* and finish the dish.
In an ideal world, says Bell, your pasta will be three-fourths of the way cooked at the exact point when your sauce is ready, so you can just drain it and add it to the sauce. Always pull your pasta out of the boiling water before it’s completely cooked, and let it finish cooking in the sauce, so it absorbs the flavors better.
In the real world, make the sauce first and set it aside. Then cook the pasta and focus on that, pulling it from the water when ready and adding to the pretty much finished sauce.
* Make the pasta:
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, adding the couple tablespoons of olive oil. Add salt. (“Just watch out for the volcano of foam when the salt hits the water,” says Bell. “Try to use a pot big enough, where you only need to fill it three-fourths of the way in order to cook the pasta.”)
Add pasta to sauce.
Optional adds: To “sex it up a bit:”
1 handful baby arugula
1 bunch Italian parsley, chopped finely
1 pint of grape tomatoes, halved
Zest from 1 fresh lemon, plus the juice
2 ounces very good olive oil (“The one you display on your counter – but don’t use,” says Bell.)
2 tablespoons Panko bread crumbs, toasted golden in butter
All of the above ingredients are tossed into the pasta and sauce, off the heat right, at the end.