Clambakes: How to Carry On the Tradition

by Elizabeth Skipper | August 21st, 2013 | Ask the Chef

clamsI am a little embarrassed to pose this question, as I’ve lived in New England my entire life, but how would I make a clam boil?  I remember attending family gatherings as a child, but I’ve never tried one myself.  Do you have suggestions on what to include and how to arrange it?

I assume you mean to ask about a clambake, a distinctly New England tradition, as opposed to a crab boil, which hails from further south. This is a bit of a misnomer, as the food mostly commonly associated with a clambake is lobster; in fact, in Maine, it’s known as a lobsterbake. However, clams (soft shell clams, also called “steamers”) come in pretty close behind, so let’s not get hung up on nomenclature.

Another ingredient that’s a must is corn on the cob. After that, you may encounter chicken, a sausage like chouriço, new potatoes, boiling onions, and other kinds of seafood such as crabs, mussels, oysters, and even whole fish.

The traditional clambake is done outdoors, preferably at the beach. A fire pit is dug, and lined with large stones. A large fire is built on top of the stones with wood and, if you’re doing this at the beach, driftwood. The fire should burn well for a couple of hours before the wood is allowed to burn off. This will take a couple more hours. (To be truly authentic, both the stones and driftwood have been gathered at the beach. Are you beginning to appreciate that this is an all-day affair?) The idea is to get the stones as hot as you can, actually glowing with heat. They are what will do the actual cooking.

While the fire is burning and the stones are heating up, someone should be gathering lots of seaweed. The best kind is rockweed, which has little water-filled sacs that pop when heated, creating steam for moist heat cooking. If you can’t get seaweed at the beach, it’s sometimes available where lobsters and clams are sold.

Once the stones are properly heated, they’re covered with seaweed, then the food is layered in the pit, beginning with the foods which will take the longest to cook. So the potatoes and clams go on first, then another layer of seaweed, mussels and sausages if using, seaweed, corn and onions, seaweed, and finally the live lobsters. Everything except the lobsters should be made into flat packages wrapped in foil or cheesecloth. A final layer of seaweed goes over the lobsters, and then everything is covered with a thick wet tarp; be sure it’s made of cloth, not plastic. Use stones (cold ones!) and sand to seal the edges of the tarp so everything’s airtight.

Assuming you worked quickly building the clambake after the stones were properly heated, the lobster should be ready to check in about an hour. The cooking time will also depend on the weather – it will take longer on a cold day. When the lobsters are done, so is everything else. But if they’re not, seal everything back up and let the cooking continue for another half hour.

Traditional accompaniments are plenty of melted butter, lemon wedges, hot sauce if you like it, salt & pepper for the veggies, and soft rolls.

Here are some things to keep in mind: You’ll most likely need a permit to have a fire on the beach, so be sure to obtain one beforehand. Buckets for seaweed and a fire extinguisher are needed. The lobster and clams are highly perishable, so keep them on plenty of ice in coolers while all the preparation is being done. Since this is an all-day affair, you’ll also want to have plenty of cold beverages on hand, and some snacks to keep everyone going until it’s time to chow down.

OK, sounds like a ton of fun, but also a ton of work, right? Maybe you don’t want to put in this much effort, you’re not near the ocean, or you’re short on time. In that case, just get the ingredients and cook them up in foil packets on the grill (add a little moisture in the form of water, beer, or whatever sounds good to the packets), in a large stockpot on the stovetop, or in the oven in a roasting pan. For a more authentic taste, see if you can get some seaweed to cook with the food; its brininess will be a nice flavor boost.

Do you know who we have to thank for this method of cooking such quintessentially American fare? None other than the native Americans. After all, it wasn’t the colonists who came up with the clambake. It’s fun to think that while you’re enjoying this delicious fare, you’re also continuing a uniquely American tradition.

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