Plus a lighter take on the classic Negroni.
Credit: Adam Campbell-Schmitt

Summertime, as they say, is when the livin' is easy. And with a bounty of fresh ingredients to work with, the cooking should be easy too, to maximize that sun-soaked, relaxed vibe all season long. One bright and briny staple of summer dinners is the classic linguine with clams, which restaurateur and Food Network personality chef Geoffrey Zakarian demonstrated before a a hungry audience at the 2018 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Here are five things you need to know to execute this simple summer dish beautifully.

Plan your portions

For the clams, Zakarian ballparks about a dozen per person—that's in-the-shell clams, if you're going without shells you'll need so many more (and why bother with that?). A good thing to remember is that sometimes clams are hit-or-miss, so you may be tossing out a few bad buggers along the way. For pasta, Zakarian says to go with a little less than the suggested portion on the box. After all, as he points out, "they're trying to sell you more pasta." All told, for about 15 dollars you can serve four people a beautiful meal (in under 30 minutes, to boot).

Use the good stuff

"This dish has like four ingredients, so they all have to be really good," Zakarian says. The clams have to be fresh (they should smell like the ocean) and free of sand, which he says you should ask the seafood seller to do for you. If not, just soak them to remove the debris. They should all be closed, but if a clam is already open, tap it on the counter: If it doesn't close up immediately, it's bad. Toss it out. As for wine, he said to avoid cooking with anything you wouldn't drink. It doesn't have to be expensive, but remember that when the alcohol cooks off, the essence of that wine is what you want in your dish. If it's not good to begin with, it won't be at the end.

When it comes to pasta, you might be surprised to learn that the "good stuff" doesn't have to mean fresh pasta. "There are a lot of great dry pastas out there. I almost prefer dry pasta—it holds up to heavy things like eggplant and mushroom," he says. Sure, in his restaurants they'll use fresh pasta but that's more a matter of timing. "We use mostly fresh pasta because it's great for a restaurant. It's a three-minute minute pickup. Order comes in, boil the pasta, add the sauce, and it's ready. It's just because dry pasta takes 12 to 16 minutes, not because fresh is better."

Give your clams some room (and a shot of liquor)

To cook the clams, start with a hot skillet and add some olive oil, fresh garlic, and red pepper flake. Use a large pan so that when you put the clams in they spread out and cook evenly. In Zakarian's recipe, you don't need any additional salt, as the clams are briny enough on their own. He adds about a cup of white wine and a shot of clam juice (or clam liquor) to bring out the flavor of the shellfish. Then cover and let them steam for a few minutes. Zakarian says the clams should all open at the same time. If one or two don't budge, toss 'em out (that's why you bought extra).

Cook the pasta separately (and later)

Despite the water taking twice as long to boil at Aspen's near 8,000-foot altitude, Zakarian says it's worth it to boil the linguini separately and not believe any "old wives tales about using a little water in a pan." Just used salted water, as adding olive oil doesn't really do anything. And don't break the pasta to get it into the pot. Why? "Have you ever tried to twirl a half piece of spaghetti?"

Because getting the texture of the pasta right is crucial, Zakarian said to make sure it finishes last so that it can go into the pan with the clams at the last moment before serving. Oh, and don't bother draining your pasta. Just pull it out with tongs and you'll get some of that crucial starchy water to enrichen the sauce right along with them.

Give it a finishing touch

As you toss the pasta, clams, and sauce together in the skillet, add a tablespoon or so of butter (Zakarian admits this is a controversial move), and "a boatload of fresh parsley." Zakarian says flat-leaf or Italian parsley is best for its grassy notes. Drizzle the finished dish with a bit of olive oil before serving–in the pan, he suggests—with a side of crusty bread. Looking for a side? Try an arugula salad with parmesan, but Zakarian insists vegetables aren't necessary with every meal.

For a cocktail pairing—as an aperitivo or during the meal, your choice—Zakarian whipped up a White Negroni, which replaces the drink's usual mix of gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari with rum, Suze, and Cocchi respectively, plus a splash of simple syrup and a lemon peel garnish. Or just pair the dish with some white or rosé wine, and you're set for an ideal summer supper.