Cooking up a clambake on the North Fork

Lobster is always a welcome addition to a clambake meal.

Our shellfish waters are close to those of Rhode Island and our culinary traditions are closer to those of New England than they are to those of New York. The New England clambake is a tradition that goes back to the Native Americans before 1600.
A recipe in “Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book,” 1884, says to ” … make up a pleasant party and dig for the clams yourselves. A short thick dress, shade hat, rubber boots … a small garden trowel, a fork, and a basket, and you are ready. Let those who are not digging gather a large pile of driftwood and seaweed, always to be found along the shore. Select a dozen or more large stones, and of them make a level floor; pile the driftwood upon them, and make a good brisk fire to heat the stones thoroughly … Put a thin layer of seaweed on the hot stones to keep the lower clams from burning. Rinse the clams in salt water … and pile them over the hot stones, heaping them high in the centre. Cover with a thick layer of seaweed, and a piece of old canvas, blanket, carpet, or dry leaves, to keep in the steam. … When the shells are open, the clams are done. … At a genuine Rhode Island clam bake, blue-fish, lobsters, crabs, sweet potatoes, and ears of corn in their gauzy husks are baked with the clams. The clam steam gives them a delicious flavor. Brown bread is served with the clams, and watermelon for dessert completes the feast.”

The clambake is an ancient example of using what is at hand in a productive way. Native Americans taught the pilgrims how to survive by eating the shellfish that were so abundant along the East Coast. They gathered driftwood and stones to build a primitive oven on the beach. The hot stones were covered with wet seaweed to cushion the food and provide steam for cooking. This recipe has survived unchanged over the years.

When I first came to Long Island, in 1967, I was a cook in the U.S. Coast Guard and for one year I served at a lifeboat station in Freeport. The Coast Guard Auxiliary would often use the beach for a clambake, introducing me to a whole new kind of cooking. Today, as our resources are more challenged, it is not practical to cook in this way. But you can use a char-grill or a large steamer pot to do the same thing — and capture those unforgettable flavors and memories. Here are some updated versions of this ancient tradition:

Foil-Wrapped Individual ClamBake

Lay out a double layer of foil, 18 inches square. Cover this with two layers of cheesecloth. Place a handful of rinsed rockweed (available at the fish market) in the center and put the following on the rockweed: 1 live lobster; 12 littleneck clams; 4 small potatoes (skin on); 1 ear of corn (silk removed but unshucked); 1 small peeled red onion; 2 ounces smoked kielbasa; and 1 cup water. Wrap this bundle up, leaving some room for expansion, and seal it tight.

Place on a charcoal grill (or gas grill) about 4 inches from the coals and cover. Cook for 45 minutes at low heat and remove. Serve with melted butter and lemon wedges.

Clambake in a Roasting Pan or Brazier

Find a square or round low-sided pan that will fit in your char-grill with room for the cover. Place rinsed rockweed in the bottom of the pan along with 2 cups water. Cut up one whole chicken into 8 pieces and wrap individually in cheesecloth. Place on top of the seaweed with 8 unpeeled red potatoes.

Put the pan on the grill over hot coals, with about 4 inches between the coals and the pan. Cover the pan and cook for 20 minutes before adding 4 live lobsters and 4 peeled red onions. Cook another 15 minutes and add 2 dozen clams and 8 ears of corn (silk removed, unshucked). Place more rinsed seaweed on top and add a little more water to prevent drying. Cover and cook until the lobsters turn red, about 30 minutes.

Clambake in a Steamer Pot

Put a quart of water in the bottom of a large steamer pot or stockpot with a perforated rack in the bottom. Place the pot on a char-grill or other heat source. Cover the bottom with rinsed rockweed. Wrap 4 potatoes in foil and place on the seaweed along with 4 whole peeled onions. Cover and cook for 20 minutes and add 4 live lobsters. Continue to cook for 15 minutes.

Make 4 bundles of littleneck clams by wrapping them in cheesecloth and tying them with string. Add to the pot some more rockweed and the clams along with 4 ears of unshucked corn. Cover and cook until lobster turns red and clams open. Serve with melted butter and lemons.

Note: Cooking over charcoal in a single container provides delicious aromas and a wonderful ambiance, but it’s not ideal from a chef’s perspective. You can’t control the temperature or the cooking time for each item. The results can be delicious, but also result in some things being overcooked and others not cooked enough. I’m sure the pilgrims encountered the same problems. Enjoy!

Oh beau-ti-ful, crus-ta-ceous life
A-bid-ing in your muck
Through what a bi-valve knows of strife
We wish you e-very luckkkkkk

Tho’ sed-i-ment, and kinds of silt
May blanket o’er your reign
Sow seeds of roe and mind your milt
Peee-ple your wet domainnnnnnnnn

Behind your bulging azure eyes
Through your breathy mollusk sighs
A clammy ethos mild and meek
Your shell is strong but mind is weak.

For when there are two halves of you
Whether in chowder or island stew
Seabird slurp or otter bang
The end is self-same, yin or yang.

Excerpts from “Anthem for the Official Rhode Island State Shellfish”

by Matthew Farrell

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. E-mail: [email protected].