Few meals are more dramatic than a real New England clambake.
I was fortunate to attend a few when I lived in New Hampshire and Massachusetts long ago, and on a rocky island off the coast of Maine on a memorable cruise on an old, unpowered schooner.
It’s a bit like a luau.
You dig a big pit in the beach, build a roaring fire in it and add big beach rocks to heat for an hour. Then you add a big layer of seafood you’ve gathered from the ocean, place a tarp over it, then layers of potatoes, corn on the cob, clams, lobsters and maybe other things, douse it with seawater, then put on another layer of seaweed and a tarp.
The food really steams, not bakes, and the lobsters are generally a bigger draw than the clams.
You ignore it for an hour while you swim in the frigid water if you’re hearty, or you sit around and drink beer. I don’t remember getting appetizers, as the meal covers every base but dessert. For dessert, a summer berry pie is traditional.
When the time comes, you peel back the coverings and the food is ready to eat, preferably on a picnic table covered with paper you can use to dispose of the remains. Provide melted butter for dipping. And more beer.
Unfortunately, there are problems doing that here. Even if you drive to the beach, I think most outlaw digging big holes and starting fires. It also takes some effort to make sure the potatoes are cooked, as they take far longer than the other ingredients.
Fortunately there’s an alternative: the New England clam boil. It’s not as dramatic, but it’s a lot less work and a lot more practical.
It’s still a showstopper for guests, however.
The idea is simple: You steam (not boil) the food in a big pot using the seaweed that’s become common in markets to build the flavor. You probably won’t have seawater unless you dip some out on your next visit to the coast, but sea salt and water make a good substitute.
Similar dishes in the Chesapeake Bay and New Orleans include a spicy flavoring like Old Bay Seasoning or Zatarain’s, but the traditional version depends on the flavors of the fresh seafood and other vegetables and melted butter for dipping.
Ingredients for six people:
6-10 pounds small or medium-size clams (You can order them from Hog Island Oyster Co. and some markets)
3-6 lobsters (or 3 Dungeness crabs or 3 pounds large prawns in their shells — or a combination)
9 red boiling potatoes
6 ears of corn, husked and broken in half
1 package or more of seaweed (like dried wakame)
Seawater (or salted water at the ratio of 1 ounce sea salt dissolved in a quart of water)
A very big pot or turkey roasting pan
2 sticks butter, melted
1 large linguiça sausage loop (or Spanish chorizo, not Mexican)
1 pound peeled large carrots
Mussels to replace some clams
6 whole artichokes for a California touch
Place potatoes, carrots, onions, artichokes (if using) in layers, partly separating them with seaweed (which will expand dramatically), and pour in seawater to cover the potatoes.
Cover with more seaweed, then linguiça. Cover pot (using heavy-duty aluminum foil if you don’t have a cover).
Place on burner over medium-high heat and cook for about 20 minutes. The potatoes should be more than half-cooked. Add more salted water if needed.
Add more seaweed (the amount isn’t critical), then pile on the clams, lobsters or other crustaceans and more seaweed strips.
Continue steaming for another 20 minutes.
Check that the potatoes are done and the clams are open.
Traditionally, you scoop everything out and spread it across a picnic table covered with newspaper, but you can be more effete.
Serve with individual ramekins of the broth for dipping the clams and melted butter for all the shellfish and even potatoes, plus lemon wedges.
My favorite wine for this: Napa Valley sauvignon blanc.
Make sure you have plenty of napkins — terrycloth face towels are even better — and make sure people can wash their hands after they finish if you don’t have the sea nearby.
A suggestion for after the clam boil — watch the film “Carousel:” “It was a real nice clambake, and we all had a real good time.”