My winter midweek meals used to be more about nourishment than deliciousness. But one benefit of this unrelenting work-from-home era has been the chance to start dinner in the afternoon. Now, between Zoom calls, I can put on a braise or a stew and make a meal that requires long, slow cooking on an ordinary work night.
One favorite starts with corn meal whisked together with water or broth and milk. You may know it by its Italian name, polenta. That sounds fancier than its American name, cornmeal mush. It should be called what the Wampanoag call it: nasuamp. They successfully grew corn on Cape Cod for centuries before the Europeans arrived.
Whatever you call it, your polenta will be better if the corn meal (sometimes labeled “corn grits”) you use is organic and stone ground. You may think making polenta means constant stirring. But I like cooking it in the oven, where the gentle heat makes for creamy results.
Polenta can make a bed for copious amounts of grated cheese or a meaty tomato sauce, but my favorite is to top it with steamed littleneck clams and their umami-rich broth. Together, the corn and clams bring back memories of summer’s flavors, now cozily wrapped in warm winter layers.
No offense to the Cape’s namesake cod, but to me this place is all about clams. I love quahogs and razors. And when I was a kid, my older sisters teased me about how many steamers an eight-year-old could polish off in one sitting.
Clams are high in vitamins and minerals, including zinc. I remember our grandfather grandly pronouncing that the broth from the clam pot was “the secret to well-being.”
I get my clams from Evan Bruinooge, whose family has been raising them in Wellfleet since 1977. His father, Jake, started one of the first aquaculture grants on Blackfish Creek, where he noticed a freshwater stream trickling into the tidal flats. He knew that mix would add a buttery sweetness to his clams.
Evan and his son, Eli, and daughter, Casey Mae, scratch out clams even in the deep winter —watching the tide chart and the thermometer.
The nor’easter in October spread a two-foot blanket of silt onto Bruinooge’s grant, suffocating part of his crop. But he has a zen-like acceptance of such setbacks. He finds balance in “the peace and beauty out on the flats,” he says. “What can you do but just laugh?”
Winter Corn and Clams
Makes 4 servings
1 cup corn grits (polenta)
4 cups water
1 cup milk
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
Finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp. butter
¼ cup minced red onion or shallot
3 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch red pepper flakes
2/3 cup white vermouth, wine, or lager beer
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
24 littleneck clams, scrubbed
2 big handfuls baby kale, about 4 cups, loosely packed
Whisk the polenta, water, and milk together in Dutch oven with a lid and put it in a 350-degree oven. Let the polenta bake, undisturbed, for one hour. Carefully uncover the pot and whisk the polenta until it’s smooth. Keep it warm and covered while you prepare the clams. A little Parmesan will thicken the porridge.
In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion or shallot and garlic and cook, stirring, until translucent. Stir in the pepper flakes. Pour in the vermouth, wine, or beer, and reduce slightly, about 1 minute.
Add the clams to the skillet, stirring to coat, increase heat to high, cover, and cook until the clams start to open, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the kale, cover, and continue to cook until the clams are open, 1 to 2 minutes more. Spoon the polenta into bowls, divide the clams, kale, and broth among them, and serve.
Pass grated cheese on the side. It’s controversial: some people can’t abide Parmesan being added to seafood dishes. Others crave that buttery addition to their winter corn.