It’s always interesting how the addition or subtraction of a couple of flavors can radically alter the character of a dish. In this case, what could easily have been a fine bowl of rigatoni alle vongole instead became, with a bit of modification, a superlative Spanish treat.
This thought occurred to me when I bought the clams, and then saw a red bell pepper. They’re one of my guilty produce pleasures in the too-long part of the year where fresh capsicums are not an option, and they’re one of the very best shortcuts to Spain that I know of. I began by sweating the pepper, onion, and some homemade chorizo in olive oil until all was nicely softened and beginning to color. Then I added the littlenecks, scrubbed, some sherry vinegar, smoked paprika, garlic, saffron, parsley, and a jar of last summer’s tomato purée and covered the pan. Once the clams opened, I added al dente rigatoni from the pasta pot and shook it all around to mix it up and get the beautifully colored sauce all over everything.
It looked like Italy and tasted like Spain. The combination of smoked pepper, saffron, and sherry took the otherwise perfectly Italian flavors of tomato, pepper, garlic, and clams and completely transformed them. It’s obvious, of course, but an instructive concept that I try to keep in my mind as I cook. Besides making for more interesting improvisations, this sort of remixing adds interest and variation to the easy weeknight standards that can all too often feel like a bit of a rut.