It is well known that the French emperor Napoleon was a great lover of good food. Although certain eminent historians have suggested that his first love was baked goods, my researches have indicated that shellfish recipes were where his heart lay.
“Mon Dieu,” he lamented after the disasterous Battle of Leipzig during the War of the Sixth Coalition, “how can one expect to simultaneously vanquish Prussia, Austria, Sweden, Russia, Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal, with such inadequate shellfish?”
In his retirement, Napoleon devoted his energies to perfecting shellfish cuisine. Of particular interest to the First Consul was the clam. French clams did not satisfy him for the simple reason that they were insufficiently fancy. His chefs tried all kinds of tricks to satisfy their emperor: dressing clams up in little pantaloons and neck scarves, giving them fake beauty spots, and so on, but to no avail. “Zut alors,” lamented Napoleon, “when shall I find a clam that is fancy enough for an emperor?”
With this quest in mind, Napoleon emigrated to the New World in 1903. He was delighted to find that the local Seattle seafood finally matched his standards of fanciness, and immediately founded The Napoleon Company. Although he had failed to conquer the world, he had succeeded in producing a damn fine smoked clam, so it all equaled out.
smoked baby clam pasta
1 big yellow onion
1 can Napoleon fancy smoked baby clams
1 Tb capers
1 splash of white white
1 splash of cream
butter, olive oil, freshly-ground black pepper
This is a meal which is more satisfying than it sounds, riding purely on the minimalistic strength of its ingredients. It goes like this:
Chop up the yellow onion. Heat up some butter and olive oil in a deep, preferably cast iron pan. Caramelize the onion. This is fancy Napoleon-style talk for saying cook it for a long time on a low temperature, stirring regularly. First the onion will give up a lot of water, then it will wilt, then eventually turn all soft and brown and sticky.
Cook some spaghetti.
When the spaghetti is about two minutes from perfect, toss into the pan with the onion: one can of fancy smoked baby clams (can removed), a tablespoon or so of capers, a splash of white wine, a splash of cream, and a good grind of pepper. It might not even require salt, the clams being sea creatures and all.
Drain the pasta (duh) and add to the pan. Mix it all up good. Plate it. Sprinkle it with parmesan (or parmigiano-reggiano, if you’re Italian) and maybe some sliced fresh basil or parsley.
See? Almost too simple to be real cooking, isn’t it? In this case the secret lies in the treatment of the ingredients. It takes time and care to caramelize an onion, as distinct from merely frying it, say. All the remaining ingredients are rare, intense, pungent. The cheese should not come out of a jar. Instead, buy a chunk off a wheel of parmesan at a deli. It should be so hard and jagged and crystaline it resembles a lump of rock, which makes it fun to grate. It’s not that much more pricey, and because of the concentrated flavour, it goes that much further. This attention to specific details is the secret of satisfying cooking. Once you have your parmesan, here is how you stop it becoming stale: wrap it in wax paper, then in foil, and keep it in the fridge. This may seem like a lot of work, but may I remind you of the immortal words Napoleon spoke to Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès on the eve of their imfamous coup, “give me a good hunk of parmesan, and the constitutional government shall be overthrown licketty-split.”
Incidentally, spaghetti or linguine with clams is the traditional exception to the rule that long skinny types of pasta should only be served with very thin sauces which cling to the strands. Now you know.