Every once in a while, I’ll order something at a restaurant that’s so wildly delicious, yet apparently so simple, that I’m immediately determined to recreate it at home. This dish is one of those.
Like many of my favorite food travel memories, this one happened in Barcelona. Towards the end of our stay, Sam and I decided to visit the Mercat del Born, only to discover when we got there that it was closed for renovations. Suddenly loose in an unfamiliar neighborhood, with lunchtime looming, we ducked into an upscale-looking place with the auspicious name Cafe Kafka. It was dim and calculatedly deco inside, with a floor-to-ceiling bar and a dining room outfitted in black and grey. Three words jumped off the appetizers list at me: almejas con alcachofas. Clams with artichokes. Two of my favorite foods. I couldn’t resist.
It arrived in a teeny-tiny cast iron pot: a cluster of yawning clam shells, perched on a pile of baby artichokes. The clams were chewy and lovely, as usual, but the artichokes were the real revelation–tooth-tender and almost buttery, drenched in the seawater-sweet liquor from the clams. The combination of lightly vegetal artichoke tang and garlicky salty broth made for even better bread-dunking than usual. I knew immediately I had to recreate it at home.
Unfortunately, I’m dating a bivalve-hater, so my clam experiment had to wait. But a couple weeks ago, when Sam was busy and I was tapped to make an early birthday dinner for my mom, I saw my chance. It turns out that making clams with artichokes is a little more complex than just steaming clams on top of artichokes, but not by much. It’s quick, deceptively simple, and special enough for an Occasion. Good crusty bread is absolutely not negotiable here–every drop of that sweet-salty-tangy potion at the bottom of the bowl should be savored. This may require picking up the bowl and sipping the dregs.
Clams with Baby Artichokes (Almejas con Alcachofas) (serves 4-6 as an appetizer)
1 1/2 quarts (6 cups) water, divided
3 tbsp lemon juice (about 2 medium lemons’ worth)
18-20 baby artichokes
1 tbsp olive oil, plus more for drizzling
4-6 medium garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup fresh minced parsley, plus more for garnish
1 tbsp cornstarch
2 lb littleneck clams (about 15-20 clams)
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Lemon wedges for serving
Crusty bread for serving
In a large saucepan or small stockpot, combine 1 quart (4 cups) water and lemon juice. Working one at a time, strip off the tough outer leaves from the artichokes, until you expose the lighter green center leaves. Trim the stem ends, and cut about 1 inch crosswise off the top to remove any remaining dark green leaf ends. Cut larger artichokes in quarters, and smaller ones in half; if there is a dark green or hairy choke in the middle, scrape it out with a spoon. As you finish each artichoke, drop it into the pot of water.
Once all the artichokes are prepped and in the water, place the pot over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Salt the water, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for 5-10 minutes, or until the artichokes are just starting to get tender. Drain and set aside.
Inspect the clams, and discard any with cracked or broken shells. If any clams are slightly open, give them a gentle tap; if they don’t close within a few seconds, throw them out. Scrub the clams with a damp cloth to remove any lingering grit or dirt, and set aside.
In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic and saute for 30 seconds to a minute. Add artichokes and parsley, and toss to combine. Whisk together 2 cups water and cornstarch, and add to the pan. Add the clams on top of the artichokes, and bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and steam for 5-7 minutes, or until all the clams are open and the artichokes are completely tender. If any clams don’t open after about 10 minutes, take them out of the pot and throw them away.
Once all the clams are steamed, transfer the mixture to shallow bowls. Ladle some of the remaining liquid from the pan into each bowl. Season with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil, and garnish with more fresh parsley. Serve with lemon wedges to squeeze on top, and bread to soak up the juices.