It’s a summer ritual, large or small, with all the flavors of New England’s luscious seafood, and a little smoke.
To feed the masses
Often held on the beach where a pit can be easily dug, the top billing of this feast is the steamer clams. You’ll probably also enjoy the clams in a chowder (chowdah) to start. Other supporting actors in the feast are lobsters, sausage, corn on the cob, potatoes, and other shellfish, often mussels, shrimp, scallops, and crab, as available. I’m not sure why this isn’t called a lobster bake since that what people are usually the most excited about, but they both have their place so I’ve let them co-host.
The ritual of the steamers
After the chowder, the steamers, a long-necked clam, are served with lots of clam broth. Dip them to remove any grit, then dunk in drawn butter. Once all clams are consumed, sip the flavorful broth, careful to avoid that grit at the bottom. The broth is as good as the clams themselves. Then, one enjoys the lobsters which are no longer too hot to handle. The corn and potatoes might get some nibbles, and often there is an obligatory salad or coleslaw to cut the richness of the meal. After all that, no one really thinks about dessert.
A very large gathering
My husband’s high school holds a clambake at their reunions every summer, and quite an event it is. Since it was a marker year for him, and the first held since before Covid, we attended this year’s function, always a good time to meet up with friends and their spouses. Over the decades, we’ve become quite close to many of them, so while the idea of attending some else’s reunion doesn’t immediately have most folks jumping for joy, I was certainly looking forward to this one. The clambake as well, which serves up to 800 guests!
So, tell me how you do this
Since the husband was off at a class meeting and the reporter in me is ever present, I found myself interviewing one of the guys staffing the fire, Alex, from the caterer Ipswich Maritime, the Ipswich Clam Company. I felt a blog post coming on, and knew I would have to transform it to feed not 750 people, but a more modest six.
Their production is both a feat and a feast. First they make a frame and load on the wood and rocks, which will eventually supply the radiant heat that will create steam from a topping of wet seaweed. Sometimes, the rocks get white hot, he said. After hours of heating, the wood debris is removed, leaving the hot rocks which are then covered with the wet seaweed, and more water is added if needed. The steam is what cooks the food, and lots of steam there is, trapped under a tarp.
I’m always amazed that the tiny clams and the large lobsters are all cooked perfectly, the gentle steam heat doesn’t seem to let anything overcook in the 45-minute process.
A little steam, a little smoke
The result is succulent lobster, tender and sweet, juicy clams, perfect local corn, and potatoes done just right. The best part of the dish is the delicate smoky flavor that is infused in the seafood, especially the clams. All that is needed is some butter and a little lemon, and moist towelettes to clean the messy fingers.
Yes, you can do it too!
Now, you might not have hundreds of people to feed, not to mention cords of wood and tons of rocks. But this cooking method can be adapted to your own charcoal or gas grill with great results.
To feed the family
The idea of making a clambake at home in the traditional manner takes a lot of work. You have to dig a big hole, get wood, find seaweed, no small task in many parts of the country I’m sure. Even in New England, if you don’t have a fish market that sells lobsters, you will most likely have trouble finding seaweed.
We need the smoke
And yet the wood smoke and subtle taste of the seaweed are unique components to the traditional bake. Of course, there is the clam boil, with all the usual ingredients, but they are boiled on the stove, adding them to the pot in order of cooking: potatoes, corn, sausage, lobster, and clams. This is a delicious way to replicate the clambake, but without the smoke and seaweed.
Need to keep the drama
But we want both, and easy as well, but I wanted it to still have the drama of a feast. I thought of using my fire pit, many folks have these in their back yards. However, finding the right stones as well as the seaweed could prove problematic for most, so grilling was the answer, more accurately, steaming on the grill.
Dried seaweed and wood chips to the rescue
Since most of us can find dried seaweed in our local co-ops, health food stores, and Asian markets, the pounds of seaweed in this recipe is replaced with just enough dried to add a little flavor, or at least I’d like to think so. Using both my charcoal and gas grills, and adding some applewood chips to enhance the smoky flavor, I hit on the right formula.
If space is tight, cook the clams separately
Probably my main deviation was cooking the clams separately. I did not want to overcook the clams, so they steamed on the charcoal grill while the lobsters, potatoes, and corn crowded onto the gas grill with a packet of applewood chips to add the smoke.
Everything came out succulent, flavorful, and with just the right touch of smoke everyone appreciated. While I used both a gas and a charcoal grill because I didn’t have room for everything on one, you can use either exclusively. Just add that packed of wood chips if using a gas grill to provide smoke. Although not difficult, it does take a bit of prep work, and you might have to borrow some roasting pans!
New England Lobster and Clambake on the Grill
For each person:
- 1/3 lb. to ½ lb. pound new potatoes
- 1 Maine lobster, 1 ¾ lb. each
- 1 lb. steamer clams
- 1 ear of corn
- 2 colossal shrimp
- A bay leaf
- Old Bay seasoning
- Few sprigs of fresh thyme
- A lemon, cut in half
- Melted salted butter
- Apple or other wood chips
- Lots of boiling water
- A couple sheets of dried seaweed
Scrub your clams to remove any mud or dirt. Scrub your potatoes and microwave for two minutes, or they won’t cook through in time. Place each portion in a layer of cheesecloth and tie it up. Devein the shrimp, but leave the shells in place, skewer them if you like. You don’t need to do anything to the corn.
Soak your clams after scrubbing, discard any broken ones, and place in a big bowl of salted water, about a quarter cup of salt to a gallon. Let soak for a half hour, drain, and rinse really well. If the water is really murky, repeat. My mother used to use a handful of cornmeal during this stage, but I don’t find it necessary, sorry mom. Tap any clams that are open at this stage. If they slowly close, they are still alive. If not, toss them.
Start your charcoal in your grill and/or turn on your gass grill to medium high. You will be ready to cook when the coals are red hot on the inside and whitish forming on the outside. If you like, add a few rocks to keep the tradition. Have boiling water ready.
I used three large roasting pans with inserts. Yes, you may have to borrow one or two, but this is a special event. Once you have them, prep all three before beginning to cook:
First, cut up one onion and place it in the bottom of one roasting pan along with a couple of sprigs of thyme, a bay leaf, and a big pinch of Old Bay. Then add the rack, and pile on all the prepped clams. Cover tightly with foil, leaving one corner open to add boiling water. Add the seaweed to the remaining two roasting pans, put on the racks, and place the lobsters on top, nestling the potatoes around them.
When you are ready to start, place the clams on the hot grill, add the water, seal, and put the top of the grill in place. Set your timer for 12 minutes. At that time, peel back that corner and take a peek. If the clams are not open, seal, and cook another five or six minutes, and check again.
Fashion a packet of wood chips. Add a cup or two of dry wood chips to a large piece of foil, fold over the edges and seal well. Poke a few holes in the top, and place this directly on top of the heating units under the grates. This will provide lovely smoke.
Place the prepped lobster pans on the gas grill and nestle a few bay leaves and thyme sprigs in between, and sprinkle all with the Old Bay. Place the corn on the warming shelf, and add the boiling water to each roasting pan. Put the cover down, and set your timer for 30 minutes. Don’t open it during this time! This about faith and patience, and lots of steam.
While everything is cooking, cover your picnic table with newspapers, and distribute crackers and picks, as well as ample napkins. This is delightfully messy business.
Once the clams are done, remove from the grill and add the lemons and the shrimp, both will cook quickly so don’t walk away. When done, keep warm.
Carefully pour the clam broth into a big bowl, and serve out ladlesful into individual bowls, and pour each person some melted butter as well. Feast on the clams while the lobsters finish cooking. The lobsters are done when they are bright red, and the legs remove easily. The flesh will be a beautiful white. You can also take the temperature, 140 degrees, but it’s usually not necessary.
Serve up the main event! Don’t forget the shrimp! You might not get to the corn or potatoes, but they will make great leftovers. Boil the lobster shells and you’ll have gallons of lobster stock for soups and stews.
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