By the end of summer, most of us are tired of heat waves, but that weather is just what seasonal produce loves. Super heated air and damp humidity can be trying for us two-legged types, but when temperatures soar, heat-loving plants would dance in the streets with joy, if they could. Gods of the summer kitchen, tomatoes and corn are at their peak of flavor this time of year. Adding roasting to the mix brings out their sweetness. Combining roasted tomatoes and corn with briny clams for a salty finish makes beautifully easy-to-make pasta.
Corn, boiled or grilled
Delicious in so many ways, corn can be eaten boiled or grilled on the cob, braised in butter, added to soups and tossed in salads.
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Boiled corn has a clean-tasting freshness. Topped with butter, seasoned with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, corn plucked from a stock pot filled with boiling water is as simple as summer cooking can be.
Many people debate whether grilled or boiled corn is better and whether the husks and silks should stay on the cob to protect the kernels from the violence of the barbecue’s intense heat. Personally, I land solidly on the side of the debate that says to create the best tasting corn, throw the corn on the barbie naked, clothed only with a thin sheen of olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper.
Direct contact with heat caramelizes the kernels, adding an umami flavor that only a hot grill or roasting pan can supply.
Whole tomatoes and clams
Tomatoes can be prepared in as many variations as corn. Usually defined by their savory acid, when roasted, tomatoes release a happy sweetness locked inside.
With affordable seafood available in abundance during the summer, corn and tomatoes find able companions at the table. To my way of thinking, shellfish forms the best marriage with corn and tomatoes by adding saltiness to the flavor mix.
Of all shellfish, clams are the easiest to prepare, because they require only a good washing in clean, cold water before they go into a covered pot over high heat. Come back in five minutes and your salt-water protein is table ready.
Tomatoes, Corn and Clams With Pasta
At farmers markets, slightly bruised and overly ripe tomatoes are often sold discounted. These failed beauties are perfect for roasting. Once puréed, the sauce can be placed in airtight containers and kept in the freezer for months. In the fall and winter, when ripe tomatoes are objects of distant memory and you want to make a soup or pasta sauce, the roasted tomato purée in the freezer will bring back the warm taste of summer.
The best clams are the freshest ones, harvested the previous day either from clam beds or farms with a good supply of clean water. When you buy clams, they are alive. Even though they are out of water, once they arrive in your kitchen, they will keep in the refrigerator in an uncovered bowl for two or three days. While fresh clams are delicious, they lose their flavor when overcooked. The pleasure of their sweet chewiness is ruined if all grit is not removed before serving. It is important to give the cooked clams a thorough rinsing in cold water as described below.
If you like the flavor of clams but not their chewiness, finely chop the whole clams after you remove them from their shells.
For the pasta, use any style you enjoy. Orecchiette (“ear”) and gnocchi pasta work especially well because the pasta shapes act as little cups to capture the clams and corn kernels.
5 pounds little neck or butter clams in the shell, rinsed in cold water
3 pounds ripe, whole tomatoes, washed
2 ears corn, husks and silks removed, washed
Sea salt and pepper to taste
2 strips bacon (optional)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 pound pasta
¼ cup pasta water
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, skins removed, finely chopped
1 medium yellow onion, peeled, root and stem removed, finely sliced top to bottom
1 cup shiitake mushrooms, washed, dried, ends of stems trimmed, finely sliced
1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)
Dusting of cayenne (optional)
½ cup Italian parsley, washed, leaves only, finely chopped
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
For the clams:
1. Wash the outside of the clams with clean water. Place an empty, large pot on the stove on a medium-high heat. Put the clams into the pan. Do not add water. Cover. After 5 minutes, remove from the stove. Take out all the opened clams and set aside. Remove the clams and discard the shells. Leave any shells that have not opened in the pot and return to the stove. Cover and cook another 5 minutes. If any clams have not opened by this point, discard.
2. Pour the clam broth that has accumulated from the pot into a lidded container. Pour slowly so the sediment at the bottom can be discarded.
3. Rinse the clams in clean water. Place the clams into the clam broth and refrigerate until needed. At this point, the clams and broth can be frozen for future use.
For the tomatoes:
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Using a sharp paring knife, make a triangle cut into the top of each tomato to remove and discard the stem.
2. Place tomatoes on a baking sheet covered with a Silpat sheet or piece of aluminum foil. Roast the tomatoes 60 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool.
3. Collect all the clear liquid on the bottom of the baking sheet. Press the cooked tomatoes through a fine mesh strainer or pass them through a food mill. Mix together the clear liquid and tomato purée. Should make 1 cup or more.
For the corn:
1. Preheat a barbecue grill or preheat oven to 350 F. Roll each ear of corn in olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and black pepper.
2. Grill the corn on a hot barbecue or place in the oven, turning every 5 to 10 minutes with metal tongs until lightly browned. Remove and let cool.
Cut the kernels off the corn, discard the cobs and set the kernels aside.
For the sauce and pasta:
1. Fry the bacon (optional) in a large skillet until crisp. When cool, crumble or finely chop with a sharp knife. Drain the oil. Use the skillet to make the sauce (below), deglazing the pan to add the bacon flavor.
2. Add kosher salt to a large pot of water. Bring to a boil. Add the pasta. Stir well. Stir every 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and when al dente after about 10 minutes, strain. Reserve 1 cup pasta water.
3. Heat a large skillet, drizzle with olive oil. Sauté the garlic, onions and shiitake mushrooms until lightly browned. Add grilled corn and 1 cup roasted tomato purée. Add sweet butter (optional). Stir well. Dust with cayenne (optional). Add the bacon (optional).
4. Add clam broth. Stir well to deglaze the skillet. Taste. If more liquid is needed and if the sauce needs salt, add the pasta water, a tablespoon at a time. Taste, being careful to avoid allowing the sauce to become overly salted.
5. Heat the sauce over a medium flame. Add the cooked pasta. Toss to coat. When the pasta is warm, add the clams. Toss until the clams are heated, being careful not to overcook.
Serve in a large platter, topped with a dusting of fresh Italian parsley and grated cheese.
Top photo: Orecchiette pasta with chopped Italian parsley, grated Romano cheese, grilled corn kernels, roasted tomato sauce and shucked butter clams. Credit: David Latt