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Cooking for One: Clambake leaves her happy as a clam

Thursday, August 22, 2002

By Marlene Parrish

It's August, and I'm thinking clambake. With squinted eyes, I envision a gang of pals, a sandy beach, a pile of firewood, lots of rocks, a mess of seaweed and my Honey helping to dig a pit. Unfortunately, the Chatham Village grounds committee is finicky about messing with our manicured lawns. And me, I'm just looking for Thursday night's supper, not a full production number.

But that's no excuse not to have a clambake.

I first tried what I now call "The Condo Clambake" when my kitchen was torn up during its recent renovation, leaving me with one sink, one burner and an incentive to be creative. The clambake-for-two was the easiest meal I made during construction.

It couldn't be easier. You dump the ingredients in a big pot, cover and turn on the heat. The whole thing takes about 30 minutes, and the result is dummy-proof. The recipe is borrowed from Mark Bittman, writing last year in The New York Times food pages:

"Although a true clambake relies on wood for its heat source, the cooking technique is not grilling but steaming. In a big pit, a huge wood fire heats the stones, which in turn sizzle a bed of seaweed, which produces enough steam to cook the ingredients. The minimalist solution is to just use a pot. What you miss is process, not flavor. What you gain are time and unspent effort."

Here's how it's done.

Clams, lobster, corn and potatoes are traditional in a clambake. Mussels, in equal proportion to the clams, add more seafood juices and flavor, and the shells are dramatic -looking. Some people like meat in the clambake, others do not. Sausage adds a Portuguese note, but it can be eliminated if smoky broth isn't to your liking. Choose from kielbasa, andouille sausage, knockwurst or a 1/2-pound piece of very lean slab bacon in one piece. Potatoes and corn -- an ear or two per person -- round out the dish. A baguette to dip in the juices and glass of white wine or beer are all the extras you need.

Forget about adding seaweed to the pot, and don't be tempted to add wood chips. You'll just end up picking junk out of your teeth and complicating a simple dish.

There is little prep once all of the ingredients have been purchased.

Look for a frisky lobster and carry it home in a cardboard box so it can breathe. Figure a half lobster per person. Put it in the fridge in a baking pan and cover with a damp cloth. Don't worry, chilled, he won't try a Woody Allenesque getaway.

To rid the live clams of their digestive substances, purge them like this: Add 1/3 cup of table salt to 1 gallon of water in a large bowl. Add the clams, and allow them to rest in this mock sea water for 1 to 2 hours. You will be amazed at the amount of debris they rid themselves of. When ready to use, rinse the clams well under cold running tap water.

Rinse the mussels, and pull off any beards if necessary. When tapped, any open shells should close. Discard any gape-ers and those with broken shells.

The size of the pot depends on the size of the lobster and the number of ears of corn. I have used both 8- and 12-quart stock and canning pots and the timing is still the same.

The potatoes determine the cooking time. Even tiny ones take at least 20 minutes of steaming. But just in case, to ensure the delicateness of the seafood, I always cut the potatoes into chunks. None of the seafood will overcook during that time.

When everything is in the pot and before turning on the heat, add half a cup of water as a safeguard against initial scorching before the seafood starts to give up its juices. After a few minutes, the liquids will come to a boil; turn the heat down

to medium. Sometimes I add a few chopped shallots and garlic, but additional seasoning isn't necessary. The broth will invent itself.

While the clambake steams, set the table. Cover the surface with a layer of newspapers. Find a nut or lobster cracker and several lobster picks or toothpicks. Get out a large platter for the lobster, sausage and corn. Get out a bowl for the mussels, clams and potatoes. Have a large bowl ready for the spent shells. Dampen a couple of tea towels for hand wiping. Open the wine or beer, set out plates, glasses and flatware. Ready a board and knife for dividing the lobster. Toss a baguette on the table.

This recipe serves two generously. Add another lobster, a couple of ears of corn and a few more potatoes and it will serve four. When you are finished, wrap up the shells in the newspaper, toss in the trash and there you are.

Solo diners are gonna love this. Invite a pal over to share the fun.

Clambake in a Pot

Open a bottle of white wine and offer a baguette to complete this fabulous summer dinner. Save any broth and leftovers and refrigerate them. Next day, cut corn off the cob and add the kernels to the broth. Reheat the soup, seasoning it with chopped parsley and red pepper flakes to your taste.

  • 1/2 pound andouille sausage or kielbasa (optional)
  • 2 pounds hard-shell clams (Littlenecks), washed
  • 2-pound bag of mussels, picked over, washed and debearded
  • 1 pound tiny new potatoes (about 10) or waxy potatoes cut into chunks
  • 1 1/2-pound live frisky lobster
  • 4 ears corn, shucked
  • 1/2 cup water
  • Melted butter, optional

Put the sausage in a large deep pot placed over the biggest burner on the cooktop. Add the clams and mussels, then the potatoes. Top with the lobster and the corn. Add 1/2 cup water. Cover, and turn the heat to high.

Cook, shaking the pot every few minutes, without taking off the lid, for about 20 minutes. Lower the heat to medium when the liquids start steaming. Remove lid carefully, and poke a knife into a potato to see if it is done. If not, recover, and cook 5 to 10 minutes more, but this step is usually not necessary. The lobster will be bright orange-red.

Using tongs, put the lobster on a board and cut it in half with a big knife; then put the lobster halves, corn and sausage on a platter. Put the clams, mussels, potatoes in a large bowl and ladle over the cooking juices. Offer melted butter, if you like. Makes 2 servings.

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