Spaghetti with razor clams

The first time I ate these rather space-age-looking shellfish was overlooking a marina in La Rochelle. We were lunching at a 'seafood shack', one of several small huts by the water that served fresh seafood, simply cooked. There was no menu, just a chalkboard over the serving counter with the names of various forms of fish and shellfish. We ordered most of the things on offer, sat on plastic tables with paper napkins, and devoured an array of delicious fruits de mer. I remember mussels, steamed in a foil parcel with white wine, butter and herbs, grilled sardines, fried squid rings, and a big platter of oysters with lemon. I also remember my first razor clam: I'd seen them at the fishmongers before, but had never bought them because I had no idea what to do with them. They were soft and slightly salty, like very delicate mussel meat. When I found a tasty-looking recipe in one of my new cookbooks recently, I decided to have a go at cooking them myself.

The book in question is Cooking with the Master Chef by Michel Roux Jr. I think he's great. I've watched him on Masterchef: The Professionals and also on the new BBC Great British Food Revival (more on that another time - it's a brilliant programme and I recommend you all watch it). I love his passion for good cooking and good ingredients, and also his genuine care for the industry and the people who work in it. I also never cease to be amazed by the fact that a self-professed Frenchman can possess an accent more English than the Queen. This recipe book is great because it takes the classic French haute cuisine techniques that are Roux's heritage, but uses them to make dishes easy to recreate at home. The result is a collection of recipes that are simple, but possess a certain je ne sais quoi that elevate them from weekday meals to dinner party fare. The recipe for spaghetti with razor clams is one of the simpler dishes.

So, after a period of sadness in which I continually visited the fishmonger, buoyed with excitement, only to find razor clams distinctly lacking in their display, I was in luck: several large bundles of brown, shiny clam shells stood on the counter, wrapped with elastic bands. What is odd about razor clams is that, unlike mussels and normal clams, you can actually see the meat inside: the white clam will protrude out of its shell and wave around in the air. It's utterly bizarre to watch, and what's even funnier is when you poke the protruding clam meat, and it retreats into its shell with a sort of sucking sound. A bit like if you poke a snail. I stood there for a while, fascinated by these alien-like tentacles waving around. One of the fishmongers came along and poked them. I imagine it's probably one of the highlights of their day - it certainly would be for me if I worked there, but I do take a childish delight in such things.

The downside to the distinct liveliness of these clams I discovered later. I rinsed them thoroughly in cold water before cooking to remove any grit. The clams, in retaliation, squirted all the water back into my face as I carried them over to the pan. It was as if they could sense their impending doom. Into the pan they went, with some shallots, white wine, and olive oil, and the lid went on to steam them for a minute or so. They open much more quickly than mussels and are easier to overcook. After that came the laborious task of extracting the intestine (a bit like the black vein down the back of a prawn). You're left with very little meat, considering how large the bundle of clams is initially (this recipe uses a kilo).

The cooking juice from the clams goes in a pan with some parsley, chopped chilli and garlic, and reduces until it forms a sauce for the pasta. After that, it's as simple as draining the spaghetti, tossing it in the sauce, adding the clam meat, heating through and serving with some more parsley. It's delicious: rich and salty from the wine and the clam juices, with lovely little nuggets of flavoursome clam meat. You could also make it with mussels or regular clams if you can't find the razor variety (and to be honest, it would be a lot less faff, given the painstaking task of extracting the intestines). I've adapted the lovely Michel's recipe a bit, to include more garlic and more spaghetti (he suggests 300g for four people, which is fine as a starter, but you need more for a main course, especially as there's no filling sauce to go with it).

Spaghetti with razor clams, parsley and garlic (serves 4):

1kg fresh live razor clams (store in the fridge wrapped in damp newspaper until ready to use)
2 shallots, finely chopped
4 tbsp olive oil
200ml dry white wine
450g dried spaghetti
6 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 red chilli, finely chopped
Salt and pepper

Rinse the razor clams in cold water (wear an apron - they will spit it back at you!) Sauté the shallots in a little of the oil until soft. Add the clams, turn the heat up, then pour in the wine. Put the lid on, shake the pan, and after a minute or so check the clams - when they've opened, they're ready, and they overcook very quickly. Drain the clams, reserving the cooking liquid (return this to the pan).

Pick the clam meat out of the shell and remove the sand bag/intestine at the bottom. Chop the clams into short lengths.

Put the pasta on to boil while you finish off the sauce.

Boil the cooking juices until reduced by half, then add most of the parsley, the olive oil, garlic and chilli to taste. Season and add the clam meat. Drain the pasta, reserving a little of the water, and add to the clam sauce. Toss well, adding a bit more pasta water to loosen if you need to. Garnish with the rest of the parsley, and serve.

(Adapted from Cooking with the Master Chef, by Michel Roux Jr.)