Spaghetti with clams — or spaghetti alle vongole to the Italians — is one of my favorite dishes: simple, flavorful and satisfying.
That's because it's hard to lose with clams, which spontaneously generate their own wonderful sauce as they are cooked. All you have to do is steam them with a little liquid. When the shells part, the clam liqueur streams out, absolutely succulent and ready to glorify whatever it is added to.
In this case, I went in search of an alternative to white-flour spaghetti — something equally satisfying, but more nutritious. My first thought was whole-wheat pasta. My second was barley, which is even more healthful. A terrific source of fiber, barley is a well-known substitute for rice. I was pretty sure it'd be a fine stand-in for spaghetti, too, not least because its nutty flavor offers a pleasing contrast to the blandness of spaghetti.
The only trouble with barley (and it's true of many of my favorite whole grains, including wheat berries and brown rice) is that it can take over 40 minutes to cook. Who has that kind of time on a weeknight?
Well, problem solved. I long ago dispensed with worrying about a precise ratio of liquid to grain. Instead, I cook the barley the way I cook pasta — in an abundance of boiling, lightly salted water. This is much less stressful than measuring, and quicker, too. Also, I cook much more than I need for one meal, then pack up the extra for future meals, wrap it well, and freeze it. The next time I want barley as the base for a dish, it's really fast to make.
The fresh fennel and cherry tomatoes here take this recipe in a Mediterranean direction. If you can't find, or just don't like, fresh fennel (with its slightly licorice aroma), you can just leave it out or replace it with some celery or leeks. Cherry tomatoes are my go-to fresh tomatoes when the summer tomato season has passed and the only full-sized tomatoes on the shelf are cardboard-y impostors unworthy of the name.
Then again, if you don't like the cherry tomatoes at your supermarket, use canned tomatoes instead.
Finally, I have added one of my favorite little garnishes to finish off this dish: sauteed breadcrumbs. Sounds mundane, but they are anything but. After you make this recipe the first time, you might find yourself wildly topping every dish with sauteed breadcrumbs.
BARLEY WITH CLAM SAUCE
Start to finish: 35 minutes
3 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs, preferably Italian-style
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
1 1/2 cups medium chopped fresh fennel
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes
3 dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed well
3 cups cooked pearl barley
1/3 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the breadcrumbs and 1 teaspoon of the oil. Cook, stirring constantly, until golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the onion and fennel, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
Add the wine, tomatoes and clams, cover tightly and increase heat to high. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes, checking now and again and transferring the clams as they open to a bowl. Discard any clams that don't open.
Add the barley to the clam liquid left in the saucepan and heat over medium, stirring, for 3 minutes. Return the clams to the pan and cook, stirring, until they are heated through. Ladle the mixture into 4 pasta or soup bowls and top each portion with a quarter of the sauteed breadcrumbs and parsley.
Nutrition information per serving: 400 calories; 90 calories from fat (23 percent of total calories); 10 g fat (1.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 45 mg cholesterol; 50 g carbohydrate; 7 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 22 g protein; 240 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."