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Published: Tuesday, 5/27/2003

Time for a clambake

BY KATHIE SMITH
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

Clambakes are gaining popularity in restaurants, at vacation destinations, and as backyard fare.

Chef Mike Rosendaul of Real Seafood at the Docks has perfected the art of clambakes. Not only is a New England Clambake on the daily menu, the restaurant has produced popular themed clambakes for the last three summers.

This year's clambakes begin next month with a Creole Clambake, and Mr. Rosendaul has menus to fit just about any theme.

For a classic Boston Clambake he recommends Finnan Haddie Chowder made with smoked cod and served with cole slaw and rolls. The second course of steamed littleneck clams with garlic butter is followed by the main course of steamed lobster.

Clams can be steamed with lobster or by themselves. To steam them alone, Mr. Rosendaul often uses mesh bags because it's easy to put them in a giant steamer. The littleneck clams are cooked in garlic broth for 5 minutes. “They're done when the shells pop open,” he says. The steamed food from the mesh bags is served to diners in soup bowls accompanied by garlic butter. Diners lift the meat out with cocktail forks. (At home, you could use a cheesecloth bag.)

Sometimes the clams are cooked in big pots on top of seaweed with other seafood such as lobster, mussels, and even shrimp.

Often the chef opts for steamed Maine lobster cooked with redskin potatoes, and sweet corn on the cob. “We cook 100 lobsters in wire baskets, about 20 to 30 in a basket,” he says.

This year's clambake series begins June 24. The Creole Clambake will have a unique menu. “Live crawfish will be the first course steamed in a creole broth,” says Mr. Rosendaul. “These come out of the shell easily. You pull them with a cocktail fork or some people pick out the meat. We do a ton of crawfish.” He estimates 4 to 6 per person for an appetizer or 20 for a main dish. “They're small.”

He expects to serve Maine lobster with fried grits and mustard greens as the main course. “Last year I did spiny lobster, but they weren't as good as Maine lobster,” he says. For dessert, he plans to offer four to six Southern desserts.

On July 22, the Buckeye Centennial Clambake will be held with “everything grilled, including oysters and clams,” Mr. Rosendaul says. “We wash them and scrub them. When steamed, the shells pop open. We cover them with seaweed, and that helps trap moisture. The lobster is par-steamed and split open and cleaned,” he says. Then it is placed face down on the grill. For a side dish, there's grilled sweet corn.

On Aug. 19, the Endless Summer Clambake will be held (the menu is to be determined). “The clambakes are so successful. It's outside and casual. We have specialty drinks to go with the theme,” the chef says.

Each clambake evening begins at 6:30 p.m. in Real Seafood and ends on the Sandpiper tour boat on the Maumee River with a dessert cruise featuring bite-size portions of four to six desserts. Prices for the clambakes are $49 per person.

Travelers to the East Coast are likely to find clambakes.

A seaside clambake is a New England ritual. Clams and lobsters are often cooked in a pit dug in the sand. The pit is lined with stones, then filled with firewood, which burns down to coals and heats the stones, as described in The New Legal Sea Foods Cookbook by Roger Berkowitz and Jane Doerfer (Broadway, $26). Once the stones are hot enough, the pit is layered with seaweed, clams, lobsters, corn, and sometimes chicken.

Several years ago at a restaurant on Jekyll Island, Georgia, my husband and I shared a clambake for two cooked and served in a big pot: lobster, mussels, clams, corn, and potatoes. It was delicious and great fun.

Sometimes a clam or lobsterbake can be a destination vacation.

The historic vessels of the Maine Windjammer Association offer guests three to six-day sailing adventures off the coast of Maine. The schooners visit islands and working fishing villages by day and anchor at snug harbors at night. Guests can help sail or admire the scenery. They also enjoy an all-you-can-eat lobster bake, which includes steamer clams or mussels gathered if the tide is right. For more information, call 800-807-WIND.

Of course, when you cook for a crowd of 100, every step is magnified from a home-style clambake. Last week Chef Rosendaul demonstrated how to cook a clambake for two using a steamer pot big enough for two lobsters.

He estimates that it takes about 8 minutes until the one-pound lobster shell turns red, indicating that the lobster is cooked.

“Flavorwise, this is the best lobster and the most tender,” Mr. Rosendaul says of one-pound lobsters.

He puts the mussels in last because they cook so fast. “You don't want to overcook lobster or they get tough.”

When preparing your own clambake, decide which variety of clams you want to buy, based on availability as well as other seafood such as lobster or mussels.

Hard-shell clams are commonly used in cooking, writes Waldy Malouf and Melissa Clark in High Heat (Broadway, $30). Clams range in thickness (measured at their hinge) from 1 to 3 inches. The smaller the clam, the sweeter and more expensive. Quahogs, which are also called round or chowder clams, are the largest and used for chowder and stuffed-clam dishes. Following in size from large to small are cherrystone clams, topnecks, middlenecks, and littlenecks.

While New Englanders use seaweed to flavor a clambake, Mark Bittner's recipe from The Minimalist Entertains (Broadway, $26) flavors the clambake with kielbasa and slab bacon.

At home you can assemble ingredients in a large kettle heated by propane burners that can be rented with the kettle. Enough heat is needed to generate the necessary steam. You want to steam everything, not boil it. About 2 to 3 inches of water is recommended in the bottom of the kettle.

Get the water boiling before putting in the first layer of lobster, advises the Maine Windjammer Association. Next come the potatoes, onions, and garlic. Then a thin layer of seaweed is added for flavor. Now is the time to add corn still in the husk. Cover with foil and seaweed to hold in the heat and steam. Return to a boil and watch the steam.

For ease in eating, use special lobster crackers and picks to get into the lobster, plus small cocktail forks to use with clams and mussels. For those who like to dip lobster or clams in warm melted butter, heat the butter and keep it warm with tealight candles.



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