SPQR’s Smoked Linguini with Clams, Cherry Tomatoes and Basil Pesto

Smoked linguini with clams, pesto and peeled cherry tomatoes -- all from scratch.

SPQR’s Executive Chef Matthew Accarrino made me peel tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes. A whole cup and a half of them.

He also made me smoke durum flour in a stove-top smoker to make my own linguine noodles.

At this rate, you’d think I was a sous chef at his San Francisco restaurant.

But nope, I was just making a recipe from his new cookbook with SPQR Proprietor Shelly Lindgren, “SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine” (Ten Speed Press), of which I recently received a review copy.

“Smoked Linguini with Clams, Cherry Tomatoes and Basil Pesto” was a triumph of a dish, even if it did take a couple of hours for my husband and I to make. Nothing is necessarily complicated; it’s just a dish where every component needs careful attention. If you have a few hours on a lazy Sunday evening like we did, it’s a project well worth doing, not only for the experience, but for the taste of it all at the end.

The cookbook is like an Italian travelogue that takes you through the artisanal wines and handcrafted dishes of central and northern Italy that make their way onto the tables at SPQR in San Francisco.

The recipes range from dried biscotti and nut biscotti with sweet wine granita, and bolognese with egg noodles to the more challenging bone marrow sformato with stuffed baby artichokes.

I admit that the smoked linguini was what intrigued me about this particular recipe. It’s easy enough to smoke flour if you have a stove-top smoker or jerry-rig a large aluminum foil container. The flour does turn a slight caramel color from the smoke, which also imparts a toastiness. If you get condensation that clumps the flour, sifting it will do the trick to make it nice and powdery before using it to make the pasta.

Setting up the stove-top smoker.

The slightly caramel-colored durum flour after smoking.

Accarrino told me he likes to work with a very dry dough, and this one for his linguini is certainly that. So much so, that I had to add a little more water than instructed in the recipe to get it to hold together without crumbling to death. Accarrino says that’s just fine to do.

Although Accarrino recommends soaking the live clams for an hourร‚ย  in a tub of salted water so they purge any grit, I skipped that step because I never come across any after rinsing my clams. Maybe I’m just lucky, perhaps?

Blanching the basil and parsley definitely helps keep the pesto a vivid green without oxidizing.The parsley adds a grassiness, and an abundance of almonds adds a nice toasty nuttiness.

The pesto has such gusto to it that I’m not sure I necessarily taste the more subtle smokey note of the flour in the actual pasta in the finished dish. Still, the fresh linguini is supple and the whole dish is a tour de force of flavor.

As for those peeled cherry tomatoes? OK, I admit they did add a wonderful sweet juiciness with a soft, silky feel on the tongue. And they did take only all of six minutes to peel.

Yes, I counted.

Smoked Linguine with Clams, Cherry Tomatoes and Basil Pesto

(Serves 4)

For Linguine:

50 grams (1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon smoked durum flour), see Note

200 grams (1 1/2 cups) 00 flour

2 grams (1/2 teaspoon) kosher salt

2 eggs

2 teaspoons water or more as needed

For Pesto:

1/2 cup slivered almonds

4 packed cups basil leaves

1/4 cup parsley leaves

2 garlic cloves, sliced

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and black pepper

For clams:

2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus extra

2 tablespoons coarse semolina

1 1/2 pounds Manila clams

1 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes

Extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves sliced

1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

1/3 cup white wine

5 to 10 small basil leaves

To make the linguine: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix together the smoked durum flour with the 00 flour and salt. In a bowl, whisk together the eggs and water. With the mixer running on low speed, drizzle in egg mixture. Mix dough for 2 to 3 minutes. If it still looks very dry, as if it won’t stick together at all, add more water, a 1/2 teaspoon at a time until dough is still on the dry side, but begins to form small clumps. Turn dough onto the counter and knead by hand for several minutes; it will feel dry and firm. Flatten the dough into a flat rectangle, wrap in plastic wrap, and leave on the counter for 30 minutes to soften and hydrate.

Roll out the dough with an electric pasta roller or a hand-crank model. Divide dough into 3 or 4 pieces. Set the rollers on the widest setting. Guide dough through the rollers. Fold dough in overlapping thirds (like a letter) and pass through again. Repeat a couple of times. Switch to the next thinnest setting and guide dough through twice. Repeat until you have passed the dough through the second-thinnest setting. Replace dough rollers with the linguini attachment and run dough through it to create thin, long strands. Shake the noodles loose, then place them on a lightly floured baking sheet and keep on the counter.

To make the pesto: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a saute pan over medium-high heat, warm almonds until they begin to toast. Put pan in the oven and bake for 5 to 8 minutes or until light brown (starting them on the stove will lower the time it takes to toast them.)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch the basil and parsley until soft, about 1 minute. Prepare a salted ice bath. Remove herbs and plunge into an ice bath lined with a mesh strainer. When the herbs are cold, remove them from the ice bath and squeeze out water with your hands until they are no longer dripping but still damp. Coarsely chop the herbs and transfer to a blender with the almonds, garlic and olive oil. Add a couple of pinches of salt and pepper and puree the blanched herbs until smooth. Taste, adjusting with more salt and pepper if needed. You should have about 1 cup of pesto.

To make the clams: In a large bowl, mix 2 tablespoons of salt and the semolina in a gallon of cold water. Submerge clams in the water and let soak for about 1 hour to purge any grit. Lift the clams out of the water into a clean bowl and cover with a damp towel. (If you find that the clams you buy from your regular store don’t usually have any grit, you can skip this step.)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. (You will use this pot to blanch the tomatoes and cook the pasta.) Prepare an ice bath. Blanch cherry tomatoes briefly, about 3o seconds, then shock in the ice bath. Peel the cherry tomatoes (the skins should slide right off).

In a large saute pan that has a fitted lid, heat a film of olive oil over medium heat. Add most of the garlic slices and sweat until softened, about 1 minute. Sprinkle in the red pepper flakes, add the clams, and season with salt. Toss pan once or twice, then pour in the wine and cover immediately. Cook for 2 to 4 minutes or until the clams have opened. Uncover, remove from heat, and keep warm. Keep clam liquid for finishing pasta.

Heat a thin film of oil in a separate pan over medium heat. Sweat remaining garlic slices briefly, then add peeled tomatoes. Season with salt and cook until warmed through, about 1 minute.

Bring pot back to a boil and stir in the pasta. Cook until al dente, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain, saving and setting aside about 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Return pasta to the same pot. Pour in clams and some of the clam liquid and bring to a simmer. Stir in enough pesto to lightly coat the pasta. Simmer another minute, then taste, adding more salt if needed, and a little of the reserved pasta cooking water if the sauce is too thick. To serve, divide pasta among four plates. Spoon cherry tomatoes over the top and garnish with basil leaves.

Note: To smoke the flour, pile soaked wood chips (like cherry or apple wood, which are available at hardware stores and some grocery stores) on one end of the pan. About 1/2 cup of wood chips will do. Cover a fitted perforated pan or a wire rack with foil. Pour flour on the side of the pan opposite the wood hips and cover the pan with foil or the smoker lid. Put pan over a pair of front and back burners, with the food whips in the front. Turn ventilation fan on and turn front burner to medium. Allow chips to smolder a few minutes, then turn burner to low and smoke for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. The flour will be chalky and will have darkened. If it’s lumpy, sift it.

Adapted from “SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine” by Shelley Lindgren and Matthew Accarrino with Kate Leahy

More:My Recent Dinner at SPQR

Recipes from SPQR’s Sister Restaurant, A16: Monday Meatballs

And: A16’s Pizza Dough

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