Sentimental Sunday: A Dinner Anchor

When mothers are remembered, talk always turns to food. And usually it’s the special foods: the celebration cakes, the holiday dishes, the things eaten only if you were sick in bed.

But as a lot of mothers will tell you, the foods we think about most are the ones that help us week in and week out, year after year of figuring out what’s for dinner.

Today, therefore, I will write about Eileen’s mother’s clam sauce.

Eileen and I roomed together at Indiana University in Bloomington and have been friends ever since. Eileen visited survived my huge family back East, and her parents welcomed me warmly in Louisville. (Once they even booked me an emergency weekend appointment with their dentist when I developed a root-busting toothache, midterm.)

One visit, Eileen’s mom fed me a great clam sauce on top of spaghetti. It was the first dish I experienced where I realized I had to have the recipe. Mrs. McChesney, as I recall, was happy to share but modest about it. It really was a very simple thing, this sauce, she said.

She was right. It’s not a classic pasta alla vongole. It does not require a trip to the fishmongers, although it would not object to one. It’s a weekday sauce assembled quickly from ingredients pulled off the pantry shelves. It is incredibly adaptable. Above all, it is reliable and tastes good.

The clam sauce recipe,  as Eileen's mom wrote it out for me.

The clam sauce recipe,
as Eileen’s mom wrote it out for me.

On Mother’s Day it’s fitting to give this sauce its due in gratitude for the hundreds of weeknight dinners it has rescued. It stands by you on days when plans fall through – when you forget that the crock-pot needed to be set up, or you just can’t face peeling and chopping what you need for that clever new stir-fry (cook  time: 15 minutes; prep time: 1 hour 45).

I made it when I was single and learning to live by myself in my first apartment. Because it was a sure thing in an exciting but confusing time.

I made it for dinner when I was first married, and I made it when my kids were at their finickiest. Because it’s a great blend of comforting and flavorful and you know what, it’s easy for toddlers to pick those icky clams out all by themselves. (Builds character and fine-motor skills.)

I make it when we all struggle in after a day full of work crises and team carpools. Because the ingredients are nearly always in the house. (And anyway, we have memorized where they are in the Shop-Rite on the way home.)

I make it on rainy days at the Jersey Shore, when it’s impossible to fire up the grill. Because while grilled fresh seafood is hands-down my favorite fish dinner down the shore, Eileen’s mom’s sauce with seafood from the local markets eases the sting of missing a day at the beach.

I am starting to teach it to my kids, although they tend to wander off shortly after I throw the chopped garlic into the pan. But I think that eventually they will consider this a fine first-apartment dish, just as I did.

Several years ago I mentioned to my dear friend Eileen what a mainstay her mother’s clam sauce has been all this time, and she was glad to know that the recipe was chugging on at our house.

So thank you, Mrs. McChesney. I wish you were still around to make this for me one more time.

Linguine With Clam Sauce (4-6 servings) 

Adapted from a recipe of Betty McChesney

  • ¼ cup butter (or a combination of 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil)
  • 1 – 2  large garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2  (7-oz.) cans minced clams
  • 1½ cups bottled clam juice (approximately)
  • ¼ cup chopped parsley
  • 1½ teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1½ teaspoons dried thyme leaves
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1½ pounds linguine, cooked al dente and drained, reserving 1 cup cooking water
  • Grated fresh Parmesan or Romano cheese (optional)

Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add garlic and sauté for 3 minutes. Blend in the flour. Whisk until mixture thickens.

Drain the clams, pouring the juice from the clams into a measuring cup. Add bottled clam juice as necessary until there are 2 cups of liquid. Reserve chopped clams.

Slowly add clam juice to the flour/butter mixture, stirring constantly. Add parsley, oregano, thyme and salt and pepper to taste.

Bring mixture to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened to a sauce consistency – it should easily coat the back of a spoon. (If your sauce is getting too thick and gloppy, you can thin it with a few tablespoons of pasta water from cooking your linguine.)

About five minutes before the sauce is done, add the reserved chopped clams and continue cooking until they are heated through.

Toss the sauce over the hot cooked pasta and serve at once, topped with grated cheese if desired.


There is nothing much you can do to this recipe that will harm it, short of lighting it on fire. My family loves garlic, so I have often used twice the 1-2 cloves. I have also thrown in chopped shallots or spring onions. A while back I began using a half-and half mix of olive oil and butter, with no ill effects.

I have been known to forget the thyme but nobody complains. You could also add other herbs like a bit of chopped fresh basil or chives in addition to the oregano and thyme.

You obviously can use lots of different pasta shapes with this – we like rotini and bowties as well as spaghetti or linguine.

Most important, the sauce base works with lots of fish. I have added shrimp and scallops (fresh or thawed from frozen).  Once we had a huge Alaskan king crab leg left over from a seafood restaurant meal, and I threw the shredded meat into the sauce along with the clams. Big hit.

Once you get the hang of the butter + flour + liquid dance, you could really go wild and use chicken broth as your liquid and some chopped cooked chicken instead of clams. Add a bit of dried tarragon instead of oregano. Put it over steamed brown rice instead of pasta, very nice.

You get the picture. You can endlessly substitute depending upon your larder or leftovers, and this recipe will just keep loving you back.

Happy Mother’s Day.


2 Comments on “Sentimental Sunday: A Dinner Anchor”

  1. Julie says:

    Liz, thanks so much for your post about Mom’s linguine with clam sauce. I haven’t thought of it in years, and your post made me smile & tear up a little bit.

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