A clam chowder that tastes like summer

Enriched with polenta and zucchini, this corn and clam chowder draws inspiration from a Tuscan vegetable soup.
Enriched with polenta and zucchini, this corn and clam chowder draws inspiration from a Tuscan vegetable soup.PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - A traditional chowder of corn, potatoes and clams is like a clambake in a bowl, minus the lobster. Everything bobs about in a delicious broth, highlighting the sweetness of each ingredient.

Now, some purists may say corn is not traditional, since you can add it only in the summertime. But I am pretty sure most people do not mind, as recipes for clam chowder with corn are widely found.

The humble building blocks for many clam chowders are salt pork (or bacon), potatoes and milk – inexpensive ingredients that any New England cook would have on hand – and, of course, clams.

Whether digging their own or buying them, most people use briny, flavourful quahog clams. Large and meaty, they must be chopped. Cherrystones are somewhat smaller and also make good soup. For the most elegant, delicate chowder, use littlenecks, which are small and tender enough to eat whole.

Steam your own, if possible, or buy chopped clams from the fishmonger.

For milk-based Cape Cod and Boston-type white chowder, you either thicken the soup or you do not. In Manhattan chowder, you would use tomatoes, not milk, while Rhode Island chowder is strictly brothy.

Traditionalists should read no further.

My corn and clam chowder has a somewhat Italian slant: It employs polenta and zucchini, and tastes like summer – bright, spectacular, golden and fleeting.

My approach stems from a Tuscan vegetable soup I know that uses a small handful of polenta to thicken the broth just slightly. I added a little polenta to my brothy corn and clam soup towards the same end and to reinforce the corn flavour. In a way, you could think of clam chowder as a vegetable soup with clams, so adding market-fresh zucchini makes sense, right?  Perhaps I haven’t the right to call it chowder, though I was not aiming for a correct 
chowder so much as a tasty one.

I may as well confess to further transgressions.

There is no bacon. Instead, I give it a dollop of not-very-Italian creme fraiche, a squeeze of lime and dash of crushed red pepper.

This soup may not recall childhood memories of chowder, but it is comforting nonetheless.  

Corn and Clam Chowder With Zucchini and Herbs

INGREDIENTS
3.6kg chowder clams in the shell, scrubbed (about 30 pieces), or substitute 450g chopped fresh clams (about 3 cups)
2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups diced onion
1 cup diced celery
Salt and pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch of crushed red pepper
1 tsp chopped thyme
½ cup medium yellow polenta (not fine)
4 cups water or chicken broth
4 cups clam broth, more as necessary
3 cups cubed potato, preferably yellow-fleshed, like Yukon Gold
3 cups corn kernels, from about 4 ears
4 cups cubed zucchini or other summer squash
2 limes, halved
6 to 8 Tbs creme fraiche or sour cream
3 Tbs parsley
1 Tbs fresh oregano or marjoram

METHOD
1. Set up a clam steamer or put about 5cm of water in a large pot with a lid, place over high heat and bring to a boil.  
2. Steam open clams over high heat, covered. Large clams will take about 12 minutes. When cool, shuck the clams. Strain and reserve all clam broth, leaving any sand or grit in the bottom of the pot. Chop meat roughly and set aside. To save time, do this step in advance. (If using chopped clams, skip Steps 1 and 2.)
3. Put olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and celery, season generously with salt and pepper and cook until softened - about five to eight minutes.
4. Add garlic, red pepper and thyme. Stir and let sizzle briefly, then add polenta and stir to coat. Gradually add the water, stirring constantly with a wire whisk as mixture begins to thicken, then add clam broth and bring to a boil. It should now look brothy and just barely thickened.
5. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, until polenta grains have softened.
6. Add potatoes to pot and simmer until just done - about 12 to 15 minutes. Taste soup and adjust seasoning. Add more clam broth, if necessary.  
7. Add corn and zucchini and simmer five minutes until zucchini is tender. Add chopped clams and cook two minutes more.
8. To serve, ladle soup into individual bowls. Squeeze some lime juice into each portion and top with a dollop of creme fraiche. Sprinkle with parsley and oregano.

Serves six to eight