Pasta alle Vongole
From “Apron Strings” by Jan Wong
I was provided with a copy of Apron Strings as well as a copy for this giveaway. All opinions are my own. Please note that this post also includes affiliate links. Should you choose to purchase the books I recommend, I may receive a small commission that helps keep Diversivore running. Thanks!
Most of my formal university education is in biology, but I’ve never felt the need to restrict myself too much to one particular field of study. I’ve made an effort to keep my education (both formal and informal) as broad as possible – something that’s served me quite well in the world of food blogging and writing. I’ve always loved to write, though I certainly continue to work at it. During my first undergraduate degree I overloaded my semesters just so that I could take courses in poetry composition. I worked my butt off in those classes (as you can clearly tell from lyrical, flowing introduction to this sentence), and while I write it less than I used to, poetry still holds a special place in my heart. I think I’m drawn to it because it’s full of grey areas and possibilities. It’s all juxtapositions and contradictions, meaning that you can do almost anything – though there’s no guarantee that you can do it particularly well. The real and the surreal, order and chaos, the personal and the universal – poetry flits between them all like no other writing medium. Or at least it can, if you work hard enough on it. It took me years before I felt like I had truly found my voice (we’re just going to breeze past how cringey that sounds – it’s par for the course on this subject). I was proud of the work I was creating, and finally satisfied when my poems actually spoke for themselves in the way that I had intended them to. But there was never a moment where I suddenly felt like I had become a poet. No ah-ha moment, no fanfare, no video-game style level-up. Just work, interspersed with little victories. This really hit home when our small tight-knit class was posed with a question at an end-of-year reading and get-together. Someone in the crowd (and I use the term liberally) asked if now, at the end of our final year, we considered ourselves to be poets? The moment was palpably awkward. We all kind of looked at each other before slowly and haltingly counting ourselves in by raising our hands in the air. I’m sure that each of us considered our fellow students to be poets, but adopting the moniker for our own personal use felt… well, a little terrifying. But we did it anyway. And oddly enough, you can’t really undo that. It sticks with you. Whatever it is, whatever the subject, there’s a certain finality – relief, even – when you decide to transition from saying “I’m learning to do X” to “I do X.”
So here I am, definitely not working as poet, but working as a writer. I write. I’m a writer. It still feels strange to say that, but there you have it. But I definitely did not aim to get into writing because I thought I could be a writer. I had no plans or illusions, no dreams for the future. I like story-telling and educating, and the craft of writing provides both a medium to do so and a chance to hone my communication skills. I don’t know how many other writers out there feel the same way – as if they’ve sort of fallen into things. But sometimes life throws an attaboy your way, and you start to feel like maybe you’ve done more than just fall – maybe you’ve landed. Maybe you can say “I’m a writer” without prefacing it with one of those awkward side-to-side glances. And honestly, that was how I felt when I was approached by Goose Lane publishers and asked to read and review Apron Strings by Jan Wong.
I’ve loved Jan Wong’s writing ever since I first picked up a copy of her phenomenal book Red China Blues back in high school. The idea that somebody might want to hear my thoughts about her newest book was flattering, to say the least. The book reviews I’ve done to date have all been cookbooks (something I enjoy doing quite a bit), but Apron Strings is definitely not a cookbook. There are recipes, but at its core its an examination of what home-cooking and the family meal looks like in France, Italy, and China. But even that’s only half the story; the book is also a unique travelogue and exploration of mother-son dynamics.
One of the sad realities about writing (at least for me) is that you haven’t got a lot of time left to read. I still make an effort to absorb as much written culture as I can, but it tends to be consumed in small bursts. Nothing but tweets and haiku.
I’m kidding of course, tweets are way too long now.
I used to love curling up with a book and reading it for hours, but life (read: parenthood and keeping this site alive) has made that a pretty rare occurrence these days. I steal little moments of time out wherever and whenever I can these days. Case in point: I’m writing this on a boat as I commute to North Vancouver. But this particular limitation has proven something of a boon too. Without the time to sit down and power through a book, I have to read it in bits and pieces. This means that any book I read has to be able to hook me and keep me coming back for more. I might have felt the need to finish an uninteresting book in the past, but now it tends to get tossed aside – or, more accurately, optimistically renewed twice then dumped back at the library. Apron Strings came into my life at an exceptionally busy time, and I’m quite happy to say that it has survived the trial-by-fire that is my daily time-crunch. It’s pulled me back in time and time again with compelling storytelling and fascinating looks at culture-crossing similarities and contrasting differences. It’s a book about food, but it is by no means the type of overly flowery culinary travelogue that one so often encounters (i.e. the kind that are only worth reading when you’re hungry). Wong’s style is everything that you’d expect given her body of work; bold, unapologetically blunt, yet colourful and theatrical. While there are a surprising number of real-life characters to remember while reading the book, they feel fully-realized and compelling.
Perhaps I’m breaking the rules of book-reviewing by not saying more. I feel like I should give you a synopsis, but I don’t feel like rehashing the jacket. I don’t know. I like writing the poetry, not analyzing it. So allow me to be blunt: Apron Strings is a damned good read. It’s captivating, entertaining, and as a fantastic little bonus, it’s full of great little recipes. I’ve reprinted one of them below, and it’s definitely one I’ll be making again. You should make it for your family and friends. Then you should find a rare hole in your schedule and curl up with this book.
Italian Home Cooking
As I mentioned above, Apron Strings explores home cooking in France, Italy, and China. Each section is fascinating in its own right, and the similarities and differences between them are fascinating and at times a little startling. Take the humble wok. When you think about Italian cooking, you probably don’t think ‘traditional Chinese carbon-steel wok.’ But one of the more interesting little tidbits that Wong discovered was the popularity of woks in Italy. They handle small and large dishes well, they’re deep, they heat up quickly, and they’re easy to find. I love my wok, so I can definitely understand why they’ve found a place in the Italian home. And let me say this – a wok really is bang-on perfect for making Pasta alle Vongole. Seriously folks, try it out. But do me a favour – don’t buy a non-stick wok. Never buy a non-stick wok. They’re a travesty.
I don’t want to steal the book’s thunder too much (seriously, you should read it), but there’s a lot to like about what Wong encountered in the Italian home and kitchen. Meals are still incredibly family-focused, and cooking from scratch still holds a place of great importance without being overly slavish or obsessed with rules (contrary to popular portrayal, while there are plenty of strong opinions among Italians about how to cook, there are also plenty of acceptable shortcuts and flexible suggestions when it comes to things like pasta, sauce, etc.). There are things that will seem foreign to North American readers of course, including chopping vegetables against a thumb, wasting egg whites, and obsessive washing (there are separate points that feature the washing of sliced vegetables, and the use of literal steel wool to wash produce). Nonetheless, it was the chapter on Italy that left me feeling the most optimistic about home cooking and the family meal. I couldn’t help but feel that food still holds a robust, immovable, and essential place in Italian life, and it left me hoping that we’d see a similar approach to home cooking spread to other countries. A little pasta alle vongole is a good place to start.
These are my notes for adapting the recipe as-printed in Apron Strings. There are a few notes directly in the book itself, and these are reprinted below.
Very small clams are more than likely going to be quite hard to find. Manila clams are larger, but are easier to find and quite tasty. I used rope-farmed Manila clams from Salt Spring Island, keeping this delicious, local, and sustainable.
When it comes to the wine, olive oil, and spaghetti, use the best quality ingredients you can find, as they all contribute significantly to the final taste and character of the recipe. The olive oil in particular is quite important given the volume you’re using.
Concentrated seafood gel may be quite hard to come by, but that’s ok. Bottled clam juice is easy to find. If you can’t find either of these though, try using 1 cup of good fish stock.
The recipe calls for spaghetti, but any long thin pasta will work (in my opinion). I used fettuccelle because that’s what I had on hand.
Yes, that’s a wok in all the photos. You can use any large pot, but a wok actually works perfectly for this recipe. As I mentioned above, there’s a lovely little section of Apron Strings dedicated to this very fact. Woks are quite wonderfully universal, and it turns out that they’ve become popular fixtures in many Italian kitchens. If you don’t have a wok, make sure whatever pot you use can accommodate the seafood, sauce, and pasta when they’re all combined at the end.
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Note that the sodium content is an estimate, as a good deal of the salt will remain in the pasta water.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
Italian Recipes on Diversivore
An Italian classic straight from a real Italian family - this wonderful, simple, delicious recipe comes from Jan Wong's book "Apron Strings" (Goose Lane). Reprinted with permission.
- 2 lbs fresh small clams
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin cold-pressed olive oil divided
- 3 cloves garlic 2 flattened with knife blade; 1 finely minced
- 1 pkg Knorr concentrated seafood gel or substitute 1 bottle clam juice
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 lb imported Italian dried spaghetti
- 1 tbsp salt for pasta water
- 3 tbsp parsley finely minced
- Soak clams for several hours in salted water, changing the salt water three times, or until there's no more sediment, to release grit. Rinse well.
- In a wok or pot big enough to hold the final dish, gently heat 1/4 cup of olive oil. Sauté the 2 flattened cloves of garlic until lightly golden. Remove garlic. (You can eat it later if you want.)
- In the same wok, dissolve 1 small container of Knorr concentrated seafood gel into 1 cup of warm water. (If not available, use a small bottle of clam juice.) Add dry white wine. Bring to a rolling boil.
- Add clams and bring back to a boil. After 10 minutes, turn off heat. These can wait while you're having your first course.
- Boil a large pot of water for pasta. Add salt. Cook dried spaghetti (spaghettini and linguine are fine, too, but don't use fresh pasta). Bring clam sauce back to a rolling boil. When pasta is a minute shy of al dente, drain and add directly into wok of boiling clam sauce.
Bring back to a boil and toss. Cook for 20 seconds. Turn off heat. Mirella doesn't do this, but I add a clove of finely minced raw garlic. The heat of the sauce will modulate the garlic, but it will still taste garlicky. Splash on the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil. Toss well. Sprinkle with minced parsley and serve immediately - right out of the pot.
Soaking the clams may or many not be necessary, depending on where you get your clams. Freshly dug clams, or those that might not have been purged in a store or market should be cleaned as instructed above. If you have a good fishmonger who purges clams in store and/or you can get farmed rope-grown clams, there's a good chance you won't need to do any purging at home. I used farmed Manila clams from Saltspring Island in BC and didn't have to do any purging.
Italy vs. Canada - adapting the recipe
These are the Diversivore notes for adapting the recipe as-printed in Apron Strings.
Very small clams are more than likely going to be quite hard to find. Manila clams are larger, but are easier to find and quite tasty.
When it comes to the wine, olive oil, and spaghetti, use the best quality ingredients you can find, as they all contribute significantly to the final taste and character of the recipe. The olive oil in particular is quite important given the volume you're using.
Concentrated seafood gel may be quite hard to come by, but that's ok. Bottled clam juice is easy to find. If you can't find either of these though, try using 1 cup of good fish stock.
The recipe calls for spaghetti, but any long thin pasta will work (in my opinion). I used fettuccelle because that's what I had on hand.