Clams and mussels have changed my weeknight dinner game forever.
Clams are my avocados, and here's what I mean by that: When I want to cook a simple weeknight meal that tastes great, has nutrients (or whatever), and makes me feel a little bit fancy, I gravitate towards mollusks: in particular, bivalves.
While clams and mussels aren't widely considered Weeknight Cooking Canon, I've found that they are the single best foundation for a quick dinner—one that's surprisingly inexpensive and almost impossible to mess up.
Many people choose to labor over chicken breast, finding inventive ways to render it tender and flavorful (there are ways!), but I have chosen a path of far less resistance: throwing a scrubbed bag of clams in a sauté pan with garlic, red pepper flakes, bright extra-virgin olive oil, and white wine, then forgetting about it all for a bit as I sip wine out of the bottle.
The great thing about clams and mussels is that if you overcook them for a minute or two, they're still going to taste fine and the texture isn't really compromised. (And, remember, always toss the ones that don't open in the pan.) Plus, I've found you don't have to stick to exact measurements listed in recipes, and you don't even need to use a recipe, once you nail down a few basic techniques—especially when you're preparing them for that perfect baguette-dunking broth, where the clam itself plays second fiddle to that juice. When I make clams, which I do a few times a week, I like to splash in unmeasured glugs of beer or white wine, which steams open the shells and makes a complex foundation for sauce.
My go-to preparations of mussels and clams are the ones that require the least amount of ingredients, all of which you're likely to already have lying around your kitchen: spices, garlic, half-consumed bottles of wine, lemon, canned tomatoes, etc.
While bivalves seem more expensive and out-of-reach than chicken breast, you don't need a lot to stretch them into a beautiful spaghetti con vongole, or zuppa di cozze; they release so much flavorful liquid, they can do the heavy-lifting in a pasta dish even if you only buy a few. You'll stretch them even further if you chop up bacon, which you should, and fry it in the pot before you add your clams. (Pork and shellfish are best friends.)
So, see below for a few super-simple recipes that will kick-start your beautiful lifelong relationship with mollusk preparation.
The Classic: Spaghetti with clams and garlic
The Sophisticate: Creamy clam and white bean chowder
The Pantry-Cleaner: Steamed mussels with tomato-and-garlic broth
The Crowd-Pleaser: Clams the sailor's way
The Go-To: Littleneck clams steamed in Vinho Verde
Apologies to other mollusks, like snails, "sea hares," and conch, which I don't yet feel confident cooking.