An Unorthodox Pasta with Clams

Plus, classy shots, strawberry rhubarb tiramisu, and tips for stunning snack spreads

In this month’s edition of GraceFULLy, I give tips for making a snackboard that will make you famous (at least, amongst peckish friends and family), talk about my recent aperitif obsession, and provide a few recipes (both liquid and solid) for these waning spring days.

What I’m Eating

Unorthodox Pasta alle Vongole with Zucchini and Corn

I love salt. Before Molly Baz made saying that cool, there were home cooks like myself who worshipped on the altar of Kosher salt, pickles, pretzels, and anything else that satisfied that craving. Like a horse and her salt lick, I’m drawn to the stuff. It’s a torrid affair.

Sometimes that craving leads to a sprinkle of Maldon on a piece of toast smeared with butter. Other times, I crave the briny flavor of clams and oysters. This unorthodox riff on pasta alle vongole satisfies that craving and accents it with sweet corn, jammy zucchini, tomato for acidity, and a dash of miso and cream. It’s not authentic, but it’s also not pretending to be. Serve with a generous crack of black pepper, a heap of grated parmesan, some pulverized nori if you’re really into rule-breaking, and some chilled white wine.

2 dozen littleneck clams, washed and scrubbed

1/4 cup white wine or dry vermouth

1/4 cup water

1/2 box pasta (there won’t be enough sauce if you use a whole box). Use whichever shape holds your fancy!

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 tsp white miso

2 small cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

2 ears corn

1 green zucchini (2 if they are small), grated

2 plum tomatoes, diced

1 tsp Kosher salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 cup grated parmesan cheese

1/2 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped

First, cook the clams, a.k.a il vongole

Heat a heavy pot (I used a Dutch oven) over medium-low heat, add the clams, then pour over the white wine or vermouth, and water. Cover and cook for about 5-8 minutes, or until clams have opened up. Use tongs to remove the clam from the pot and pull the meat out from the shells. Discard shells, unless you want to use them to decorate your final dish. Roughly chop the clams and set aside. Pour the clam juice mixture through a fine sieve lined with a coffee filter and store with the clams.

Now, let’s boil

Heat a large pot over high heat, add a generous handful of salt, and bring to a boil. While water is heating up…

Cook the veggies

Heat the oil over medium in a large, deep-ish skillet (this will make your final toss with the pasta less messy). Add the garlic, miso and red pepper flakes and sauté, stirring, until the garlic is lightly golden and fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the zucchini and tomatoes and cook for about 8 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until very soft, adding more olive oil as needed. Add the corn, salt and pepper, and cook until the corn is bright yellow and the tomatoes are jammy and soft. Remove from the heat.

During this time your water might have come to a boil, so plop your pasta of choice in and stir, cooking until very al dente. IMPORTANT: Reserve ~1 cup of the pasta water before draining!

Mix it all together

Once you’ve reserved the pasta water and drained your noodles, carefully slip them into your pan of cooked veggies. Heat over medium heat, then add the heavy cream, parmesan, and 1/2 cup of the pasta water and stir, cooking until the sauce thickens and coats the pasta, a few minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the chopped clams. Sprinkle with parsley, serve with more parmesan cheese, and pour yourself a 50/50 vermouth and tonic with olives (see end of newsletter for further instructions).

Strawberry Rhubarb Tiramisu with Lillet

Luscious, sweet and tart, this tiramisu is an ode to spring produce with layers of marscapone cream, stewed rhubarb, and lemon and Lillet macerated strawberries. Serve decorated with cherry blossoms or lilac bundles for an impressive (and easy!) dessert. Recipe inspired by Letitia Clark’s strawberry-centric version.

For the rhubarb compote

1/2 lb rhubarb, cut into 1 inch pieces

1/4 cup sugar

1 Tbsp Lemon juice

For the strawberries

1/2 lb strawberries, cut into quarters

1/2 cup Lillet or white wine

Juice of 1 lemon

1/4 cup sugar

For the marscapone cream

3 eggs, separated

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 tsp almond extract

1 tsp vanilla extract

1.5 cups marscapone, at room temp

2 packs ladyfingers (you might not need them all)

edible flowers for garnish, if you’re feeling fancy

First, make the rhubarb compote

Combine the rhubarb, sugar and lemon juice in a sauce pot over medium heat. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the rhubarb is soft and luscious, but not completely broken down. Set aside to cool.

Now, macerate the strawberries

Combine strawberries, sugar, Lillet and lemon juice in a bowl. Toss to coat the strawberries, then cover and let macerate while you make the marscapone cream.

Whip the luscious mascarpone cream

Using either a standmixer with a paddle attachment or a handmixer, beat the eggs yolks and 1/2 cup of sugar until pale and smooth, about 4 minutes. Add the mascarpone and almond and vanilla extracts and beat on medium speed until airy and integrated, about 3 minutes. Scrape into a bowl, then clean and return bowl to standmixer, this time fitted with a whisk attachment (or you can use the handmixer again). Whip the egg whites until stiff peaks form, then gently fold into the mascarpone mixture with a spatula.

Time to assemble!

Note: You’ll need an 8-inch baking dish for this (glass looks pretty). First, arrange your workspace. It should look something like this:

ladyfingers—macerated strawberries—rhubarb compote—baking dish—mascarpone cream

Dunk half of ladyfinger (they separate horizontally into halves) in the juice from the macerated strawberries, then place on the bottom of an 8-inch baking dish. Continue until bottom is covered. Top the dunked ladyfingers with rhubarb compote, then macerated strawberries. Gently spread a layer of marscapone cream over it all, then repeat the process until you’re out of room (my tiramisu had 3 layers). (If there’s any ingredients leftover, you can make mini trifles in cups or snack on a freeform tiramisu “sundae” while you wait for your masterpiece to chill). Lightly spray a piece of aluminum foil with non-stick spray and gently cover the tiramisu. Place it in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, preferably 1 hour. Before serving, decorate with edible blossoms.

How to make a snack spread that everyone will love:

As friends and family get vaccinated, gatherings are becoming a thing again. Rather than toil away at some stunner of a main dish, I’ve been turning to the formula of dip + nibbles as my contribution—and a winning one at that. People love a good snack platter and they love it even more when there’s a cheesy dip to nibble with crackers or smear onto celery. While there are no hard-fast rules for snack platters, here are some tips:

  1. The Holy Trinity of Dipping Veggies are a Must: While some are finicky about nuts and others skeptical of more exotic dippers like escarole, the reliable trio of carrots, celery and cucumbers is always a crowd-pleaser. While usually more of a vehicle for dip, let me tell you, a sweet baton of purple carrot will surprise and delight even the most veggie-reluctant among us.

  2. A Cute Serving Platter: A serving platter and bowl for your dip not only makes your spread look great, it’s also big enough to hold everything—and it doesn’t have to be expensive (I picked one up from Saver’s for $8).

  3. Salty and Snack-y Items: Everyone likes salty, snacky treats that you can mindlessly keep eating. I like to include some sort of cheesy cracker (think parmesan shortbread crackers or black pepper cheddar straws) and some spicy-sweet nuts. If your friends are a fan of olives, put out a bowlful with a smaller one for pits.

  4. A Cheesy Dip: While I love a good bagna cauda (a warm Italian anchovy dip—the name literally means “hot bath”) most people aren’t as enthusiastic about fishy dips. So while I pine for the day I can serve it, in the meantime, I turn to two cheesy dips that most everyone loves: beer cheese and fromage fort. Fromage fort is a mix of whatever cheese you have on hand (I use a mix of farmers cheese, grated gruyere, goat cheese and cheddar), plus a small clove of garlic, fresh herbs like tarragon, parsley, chives or basil, and a cup of white wine. Think Boursin, but better. Beer cheese is similar but with cheddar cheese and beer, backed up by onion and garlic powder, black pepper, Worcestershire, Dijon, and other flavor boosters. It’s great served with pretzels or pretzel chips in addition to the other dippers. John ate all the leftover beer cheese in one sitting, it was that good.

  5. Flower Power: Want to really win some ooohs and aaaahs from your guests? Pick some wildflowers (watch out for poison ivy and avoid flowers on sidewalks because, pesticides) and use them to decorate the spaces between veggies or even to garnish your dip. Before using, give them a quick rinse and shake for any bugs that might have hitched a ride.

What I’m Drinking

Lillet Margarita

Lillet is a sweet, fortified wine that comes in three shades: white, rouge, and rose. In this recipe, reach for the white version with its juicy pear, citrus, and lightly floral flavors. Lime juice adds brightness, and the smallest dash of rose water underscores the floral aspect of both the Lillet and lime. Don’t fret if you don’t have rose water—you’ll just have more of a traditional margarita on hand.

2 oz Lillet blanc

2 oz lime juice, fresh squeezed

1 tsp rose water

2 dashes orange bitters

1 oz simple syrup

Plain seltzer

First, rub a wedge of lime around the edge of your glass of choice (a taller glass will work best since the drink is topped with seltzer) and roll the rim in chunky salt. Set aside. In a shaker filled with ice, add the Lillet blanc, lime juice, rose water, bitters, and simple syrup. Cover and shake for ten seconds, or until exterior of shaker feels cold. Strain into your salt-rimmed glass filled with ice, top with seltzer and garnish with a wedge of lime.

“If I Had My Druthers” Shot

In college, a call for a round of shots was a surefire way to get me to leave a party. I thought them, and those who partook of them, uncouth. (Yes, yes, I was a snobbish, near-teetotaler back then. I’ve relaxed since then.) Little did I know that a shot can be more than cheap tequila chased by a suck of lime or a saccharine concoction of maple flavored alcohol and orange juice. It can be nuanced, classy, and dare I say, trés chic. The scales fell from my eyes after reading Rebekah Peppler’s cocktail book and French living guide, Aperitif. In it, I was surprised to find an entire section on aperitif shots, tiny creations of warm Byrrh, sweet Lillet, and bitter Suze. Visions of dainty vintage shot glasses, castelvetrano olives and fried boquerones danced in my mind. Of friends, laughing as they threw back a mixture of rye, Byrrh, curacao and sweet vermouth. A party, on the sailboat, the orange sun slipping away into the sea. If I Had My Druthers, this is the shot I would serve.

One shot to try it, 4 for friends (to increase the volume even more, which I recommend for multiple rounds, just multiply the 1 shot recipe by the number of people you have, pre-mix, and dole out).

1/2 oz. Byrrh —> 2 oz. Byrrh (Think of Byrrh as a spicier version of sweet vermouth, with a hint of chocolate and cinnamon)

1/2 oz. rye whiskey —>2 oz. rye whiskey

1/2 ounce sweet vermouth—>2 oz. sweet vermouth

1/4 oz. curacao or other orange liqueur—> 1 oz. curacao or other orange liqueur

Orange wedges for chasing, chilled

Mix together, then pour into shot glasses. Give each guest a chilled wedge of orange for chasing. Serve with cheesy crackers, olives, and other salty nibbles.

What I’m Reading

Letitia Clark’s blog: I’m usually not a blog reader, but I really enjoy English author Letitia Clark’s blog (and recipes). She wrote a lovely little piece about patriotism (not what you’re thinking), home, ponds and puddings that I encourage you to take a peek at. Her cookbook, “Bitter Honey,” and her photos of the rugged but beautiful Sardinian countryside have put the island on the top of my “want-to-travel” list. She also inspired the above recipe for strawberry rhubarb tiramisu.

A stack of books on aperitifs and spritzes: Aperitifs, aperetivos, spritzes—whatever you call them, I’m fascinated (and enchanted) by these low-ABV drinks. It all started with Rebekah Peppler’s book “Aperitif,” with my cookbook stack quickly growing to include all manner of books on the subject. Other books I recommend are David Lebovitz’s “Drinking French and Spritz” by Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseau. For a deeper dive into the world of vermouths, a staple bar ingredient that is much more than just a martini mixer, check out Jack Adair Bevan’s “A Spirited Guide to Vermouth.

While your at it, make yourself a 50/50 vermouth-tini: Add 1.5 oz dry vermouth and 1.5 oz. sweet vermouth to a glass filled with ice. Add a sip of olive brine, a few cerignola or castelvetrano olives, a thick slice of orange, and top it off with soda water. It’s one of my favorite drinks.