A traditional clambake involves the romance of an open flame, plenty of drinks, fine weather for outdoor dining and a crowd with an appetite for a shellfish bounty.
Though people strongly disagree on what makes a clambake authentic, they’d concur that it starts with little neck, cherrystone or top neck clams — and usually lobster. Ingredients diverge from there. For some, a clambake will include mussels, sometimes shrimp and sometimes sausage. Then there are potatoes, whether they’re russets baked separately, or red bliss potatoes cooked with the feast or on the side.
Corn is an essential ingredient for a clambake, which means the best time for one falls around midsummer — when you’ll find Butter and Sugar or Silver Queen varietals at the grocery store or the farm stand.
As varied as the ingredients can be, so too is the steam-bake-and-boil of a clambake, with Northeast coastal towns from New York to Maine offering different methods — all the while asserting their way is best. A few places in Massachusetts build a firepit over gravel, while many towns swear by the dig-a-ditch in sand at the beach clambake, layered with plenty of kindling and rocks. Hours later, when the fire is hot enough, rockweed, a type of seaweed that seasons the feast as it steams over the coals, is added to the pit.
Today, fires at the beach are usually prohibited. And these methods can be so challenging that they often fail.
Here on Long Island, fish markets have stepped in to help with clambakes. Some shops, such as Jewel of the Sea/Victoria’s Market in Woodbury, offer a precooked bake with lobster, clams, mussels and shrimp, packed with sides of clarified butter, clam broth and a baked potato ($40 a person cooked and $22.99 a person raw.) Other shops will layer ingredients in a pot that comes with the package. Most places offer the option of catering for a party.
But if your crowd is small enough — say, eight people or fewer — you don’t need your hand held to do a clambake at home, since it’s fairly easy to set up on the grill or on the range.
The Long Island way(s)
On Long Island, chicken as part of a clambake adheres to local traditions, according to Beth Harris, author of “The Wainscott Seafood Shop Cookbook,” which has a recipe for a clambake with chicken from 1990.
Colin Mather bought The Seafood Shop in Wainscott, now more than 40 years old, from John Haessler in 2000. Mather worked there for decades, starting when he was in high school, and continues to use chicken instead of chorizo, or kielbasa, also seen at local clambakes.
When he sets up his pot, Mather starts with hard shell clams, then adds corn with the husks on, then potatoes, then live lobsters. He uses very little water and checks on the steam over the course of about 45 minutes — or whenever the lobsters are done, he says.
Over at Southold Fish Market on the North Fork, Charlie Manwaring offers novices clambakes in a pot with some Old Bay, andouille sausage, lobster, mussels, top necks, potatoes, corn and rockweed. Both Manwaring and Mather said that more people are doing clambakes than ever, either at home for a few, for a crowd, or as a catered event.
It’s why outfits such as the Amityville-based Long Island Chowda Company (lichowda.com), started by JoAnn and Michael DaSilva, have been going strong since 2010, catering weddings, reunions and parties using a charcoal heated, wooden bakebox for their clambakes. They average around $65 a person for parties, with the company catering several clambakes a week, plus events throughout the summer open to the public at vineyards on the East End and elsewhere.
JoAnn DaSilva offers advice for the home cook: Go to a seafood shop that does heavy volume so you’re getting the freshest fish. Plan on using a 20- to 30-gallon pot, filled with a couple inches of clam broth, water and maybe Old Bay seasoning. Layer it with clams, corn, red potatoes, chorizo, mussels and live lobster. Add a splash of white wine or beer if you’d like. Rockweed adds flavor, but finding the Maine seaweed is difficult, she says, though some markets stock it.
Even without it, a clambake at home is as much a crowd pleaser as a catered event — maybe more so. The experience will make you wonder why you hadn’t done it sooner.
Why is it called a clambake?
Though lobsters are the most seductive ingredient in today’s clambake, they’re not traditional. The clambake has had a longer history than Americans’ love of lobsters, which heated up through the 20th century.
The clambake goes way back, with lore anchoring it to the first colonists, who learned about it from Native Americans, specifically the Wampanoag tribe, says Kathy Neustadt, author of “Clambake: A History and Celebration of American Tradition.”
Fast-forward to the 1760s, when one of the first official clambakes was held on Forefather’s Day in late December in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where attendees ate succotash, oysters, clams, cod, eels and “seafowl,” all “dressed in the plainest manner,” with few seasonings as a nod to the foodways of the first colonists.
This clambake was the first of many feasts associated with holidays or, later, political fundraisers — much like the 19th-century beefsteak banquet in New York, the crab feast in Maryland or a crawfish boil in Louisiana. By the 1800s, the clambake had become a Yankee tradition, increasingly associated with a rising middle class, a quest for leisure and an appreciation of the great outdoors.
Aside from clams and corn, ingredients have varied according to the period and the region. In areas with a robust Italian population, tripe made its way into the clambake. Where there were Portuguese, there’s linguica or chorizo.
For a clambake on the stove or on the grill, you’ll need a 20- to 30-quart pot and a lid, or a sheet pan if you don’t have a lid.
If you’re steaming on the grill, it’s helpful to have a spray bottle to keep things moist throughout the steaming. A few seafood shops sell rockweed. If you choose to use it, layer it between the lobsters and the corn (see below).
1 1⁄2 cups dry white wine
4 cups water
4 live lobsters, about 1 1⁄4 pounds each
1 Spanish or yellow onion, peeled and quartered
4 ears of corn, husked, halved
2 pounds little neck, top neck or cherrystone clams
3 whole cloves garlic
1 large bunch thyme
1 pound mussels, scrubbed, debearded
1 1⁄2 cups (3 sticks) salted butter, melted
2 lemons, quartered
1. Place a large steamer basket in 30-quart pot. Add wine and about 4 cups water; there should be a couple inches of liquid in the bottom of the pot. Cover with lid or sheet pan and bring to a boil.
2. Add lobsters and quartered onion. Cover and cook 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Gently nestle corn, clams, garlic and thyme in the pot. Cover and cook 15 minutes, checking liquid levels periodically.
4. Add mussels, cover, and cook until shellfish open, about 5 minutes. Discard any that do not open.
5. Using a slotted spoon and tongs, remove contents of the pot, discarding any clams or mussels that had not opened.
6. Slice lobsters in half and drain them before plating, so guests can enjoy them without soaking their plates with water.
7. Transfer clambake to a very large platter or a table covered with newspaper.
7. Pour broth from pot into small bowls, straining the sediment. Serve clambake with broth, clarified butter (see below) and lemon wedges. Adapted from Bon Appétit. Makes 4 servings.
TO CLARIFY BUTTER: (Adapted from David Hagedorn / Washington Post)
1. Place a half pound (1 cup or 2 sticks) in a large saucepan over low heat. Cook without stirring until it has liquefied, then begin skimming and discarding the foam off the top until the butter is clear enough to see through to the milky solids at the bottom of the pan.
2. Remove from heat and strain the clear butter into a separate container. Pour butter into ramekins and serve warm.
RED BLISS POTATO SALAD
While you can certainly use larger potatoes and add them to the clambake as it steams, this recipe is a good alternative, since it ensures your potatoes don’t overcook. And it’s a side with more personality that you can make year-round.
3 pounds red bliss potatoes
Extra-virgin olive oil to taste
Salt to taste
1⁄2 red onion, diced
1 tablespoon salt-preserved capers, rinsed and soaked for 10 minutes
About a tablespoon of red wine vinegar
1⁄2 cup Italian parsley, chopped
1. Fill a medium stockpot with salted water and bring to a boil.
2. Add potatoes, skin on and boil for 7 or 8 minutes, then test doneness with a fork. You don’t want them to get too soft. If they’re still firm, allow them to cook a few more minutes and test them again. Your fork should penetrate easily.
3. Drain potatoes and wait for them to cool, then halve them, lengthwise.
4. Transfer them to a large bowl, add olive oil and salt to taste. Potatoes should be barely coated, not saturated with oil.
5. Fold in the red onion and capers. Taste for seasoning and adjust. Add red wine vinegar.
6. Fold in chopped parsley just before serving and transfer to a serving bowl. Makes 4 servings.