When I want to cook something that is rich, comforting, and refreshing, I often turn to soups, stews, or chowders. For one thing, they’re pleasurable to prepare. Choosing vegetables and proteins, chopping the ingredients, enjoying the sizzling sound of onions and garlic and celery, savoring the bouquet of wine as the alcohol cooks out … all experiences that make spending time in the kitchen a wonderful interlude.
This week, let’s make a chowder, a clam chowder with a difference. Yes, there are clams, of course, small, briny, and tender littlenecks, steamed briefly and full of flavor. There’s onion and celery and garlic, so good. But there’s also corn. And polenta. Yes, polenta, and it works wonderfully well. And zucchini.
David Tanis’s recipe in The New York Times is the inspiration for my approach to this dish, and if you have an hour or so this weekend to devote to the process, you’ll finish with the centerpiece of a satisfying meal. It’s a chowder with a twist, a throughly delightful one.
Tanis eschews pork (bacon) in his concoction, and I am certain it would be fine done that way, but I had a two links of Italian sausage on hand, and decided at the last minute to add them to the mix, a decision I don’t regret. It contributed a spiciness I enjoyed, and played well with the sweetness of the corn and the soft acidity of the crème fraîche. (By the way, if you’ve never made crème fraîche, now’s the time to do it. It’s easy, and once you taste your own you’ll never go back to the store for it. Click here for a great recipe.)
A few notes before we get started: If you must, canned clams are not verboten here, though I know for a fact that fresh are better, because I’ve used both. Littlenecks are great, but so are razor clams, if you can find them.
In fact, James Beard’s “My Favorite Clam Chowder” calls for razors, and it is a memorable recipe. I made it once in Paris, with razor clams bought earlier in the day at a market, and it is perhaps the best chowder I’ve ever tasted. In addition, if you decide to add pork, feel free, of course, to use bacon, a standard in the genre. Serve your chowder in shallow bowls with a crusty bread and a simple green salad.
Corn and Clam Chowder (with a grateful nod to David Tanis)
4 pounds clams (littlenecks are easily found at most markets and grocers)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup diced onion (I used white)
3/4 cup diced celery
2 cloves minced garlic
Crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
1/4 cup medium polenta
2.5 cups chicken or vegetable stock (reserve two corn cobs and simmer them in the stock for 20 minutes)
2 cups clam broth
2 cups potatoes, cut in cubes (I used small red potatoes)
3 cups fresh corn kernels
2 cups zucchini, cut into cubes
2 sausage links, cooked gently until almost done, then cut into bite-sized pieces (or 3-4 pieces of cooked bacon)
crème fraîche (see recipe above)
parsley for garnish, to taste
1 tablespoon fresh oregano
salt and fresh black pepper
Scrub the clams, then place them in a large pot into which you’ve poured a cup or so of water. Cover and bring to a boil, steaming until the clams open (about 8 to 10 minutes). Discard any clams that do not open, then strain and reserve the liquid. When the clams have cooled, shuck them and set the meat aside.
Add olive oil — two tablespoons or so — to a large pot and heat on medium-high. Add celery and onions, plus salt and pepper. Stir and cook until onions and celery are soft, then add the thyme, the garlic, and the red pepper. Stir, then add the polenta. (Note: Tanis states clearly that one should use medium polenta only, not fine, and I agree with him, though I used prepared polenta, the kind in the round plastic tube packaging, and was happy with the results. Soda crackers were a traditional ingredient in this dish from the Northeast, and feel free to use them if you have no polenta.) Stir well to mix the polenta with the vegetables, then begin adding the stock. Stir again, then add the clam broth. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Chop the clams roughly.
Add potatoes to chowder and cook for 10 minutes. They should be soft, but nowhere near mushy. Next, add zucchini and corn, stir gently, and check for seasoning. Then, add sausage (or bacon) and stir. Add more salt if needed and let cook for 4 minutes
Next, add clams, and heat for 5 minutes on low; this allows the flavors to mingle even more.
I served my chowder in shallow bowls, topped with the crème fraîche and the chopped parsley and oregano. Wine? Try a crisp Albariño, one by Do Ferreiro, for example.
I guarantee that you and your guests will love this chowder, likely as much as Ishmael did in “Moby Dick”:
“But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt…..we dispatched it with great expedition.”
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