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blog-New Zealand cockles

The little bivalve mollusks called cockles are found in sheltered estuaries and tidal flats throughout much of the world, and a flourishing cockle bed may be packed with more than a million of them to the acre. Most of those we see at American seafood markets are New Zealand cockles (Austrovenus stuchburyi; known to the Maori as tuangi), flown in live from halfway around the globe. They can be sustainably harvested year-round, but they’re especially good  from April until August, winter in the southern hemisphere. My carbon footprint’s been extremely light this year, and—why the hell am I making excuses? They looked delicious, so I bought them. I had in mind a light meal that was still big on flavor, and the succulence and clean, briny sweetness of cockles fit the bill.

You can steam cockles like mussels, with white aromatics (leeks, celery, fennel, garlic) and some dry white wine, or with Chinese or Southeast Asian seasonings. A Vietnamese cook once grilled cockles on a sheet pan for me, then drizzled them with shallot-infused oil. They were suave and smoky, and I’ve never forgotten them. Perhaps this summer ….

What I had more immediately in mind, though, was that Italian restaurant classic, linguine with white clam sauce. It is an unfussy dish, perfect, as it turned out, for an impromptu dinner with our friends Thomas and Rick. All we added was bread for mopping up the brothy, garlicky sauce and a simple green salad, for after. And when I say simple, I mean simple. Ours was nothing more than tender lettuce leaves tossed with olive oil and Sherry vinegar. Shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano (which you would never put on the pasta), “for a faux-Caesar effect,” said Rick, brought it all together.

Linguine with New Zealand Cockles

Serves 4 generously

This recipe is a looser version of that found in The Gourmet Cookbook. It’s originally from Dave Pasternack, the chef at Esca, an Italian seafood restaurant in Manhattan, and takes beautifully to improvisation. I’ve substituted diced cured Spanish chorizo for the pancetta (hold the red-pepper flakes) with great success. And sometimes, I dispense with pork entirely, especially if I’m in a rush; instead, while I’m sautéing the garlic, I add a couple of good-quality anchovy fillets and stir them around until they dissolve into the hot oil. You won’t miss the meat.

Coarse salt

Extra-virgin olive oil

6 to 8 ounces thinly sliced pancetta or prosciutto, cut into thin strips

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

About 3½ pounds New Zealand cockles or other small hard-shelled clams, scrubbed under cold running water

1 cup bottled clam juice

A generous splash (or two) of dry white wine

Red-pepper flakes

Just over a pound of linguine

A handful of chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta. Heat about 3 tablespoons oil in a large deep skillet over moderately high heat until hot. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until golden, about 30 seconds. Add the cockles, clam juice, wine, and a scattering of red-pepper flakes. Bring to a boil and boil, covered, until the cockles open, about 5 minutes or so.

2. Meanwhile, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain it and transfer to a serving bowl. Discard any cockles that haven’t opened and shovel the rest of them onto the pasta. Add the parsley, gently toss to combine, and pause a moment to admire your handiwork: The cockles in their green-tinged shells will look so artful, you’ll feel like a food stylist. Drizzle with the flavorful juices and more olive oil. Serve at once.

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