A clambake is as much a feeling as it is a meal. If you grew up on the coast you know what I mean. Unfussy, toes in the sand, delicious fresh seafood, talking around a fire with friends and family; nothing reminds me of summer quite the way a proper clambake does. There might be a bit of variation on the recipe up and down the coast, but one thing remains the same. A summer without one is heresy. With clambake season right around the corner, I caught up with New York sommelier and founder of Ripe Life Wines Mary McAuley to get her tips on the perfect summer clambake.
Long Island Pulse: What makes the perfect clambake, why do you think they hold such appeal?
Mary McAuley: It’s nostalgic. It’s tradition. As long as we’ve lived near the ocean, people have gathered around to cook on the beach. Even though it’s messy, there’s nothing that reminds you of summer the way a clambake does. We actually had one on the beach in Nantucket last Sunday. We shucked everything in the kitchen and transported it to the beach.
Pulse: I love that you didn’t make it right on the beach. What are your tips for packing it all up and taking it with you?
MM: Beach clambakes are very fun, but it’s a lot of work to heat up the coals. I always say to get all the shells cracked beforehand, if you can get a car on beach, as we did in Nantucket, it’s a great thing to cater out of a trunk. I also always tell people to use cloth napkins. Cloth can handle messy hands, won’t blow away and you’ll use them again and again. Good for the environment, too. At the end of the meal, pass around warm, wet cloths with lemon wedges to ensure your guests leave not only full but also fresh-scented and clean.
Pulse: What are some other tips for the perfect seaside or kitchen clambake you can give?
MM: Don’t be a Slave to the Recipe. Few things pack more nostalgia into a bite than the “traditional” clambake flavors, but don’t be afraid to experiment with “topped” items. Italian parsley, dill, cilantro, lemon zest or even olive oil can make your clambake into a unique and memorable experience.
Chop the Base. Consider using a fine “Brunoise” dice for your base ingredients (garlic, yellow onion and leeks, sautéed in olive oil and white wine). It makes your seafood sing, but also can be served in ramekins with the seafood as a delicious dipping option.
Think Locally for “Fresh” Ideas. Let the nearby flavors of the season guide you. Use fresh carrots to replace corn, tomato and basil to add new dimension, or even consider chili flakes for a ‘Lobster Diavola’ they’ll never see coming.
Pulse: What inspired you to craft wine especially for a clambake?
MM: We have a ton of clambakes and when I was in school in New York I was always in charge of the wine. I decided to create a wine for the occasion, a little moonshine, designed the label, passed it around and people loved the idea so I wanted to create the perfect unoaked chardonnay for a clambake.
When chardonnay is unoaked, it’s really clean and light and reminds me of squeezing fresh lemon over seafood.
Pulse: And, you also have a rosé ? Tell us about that.
MM: It’s a limited edition rosé and a 100 percent single-vineyard Syrah that boast flavors of wild strawberry. It’s light, but complex and actually a perfect complement for claw meat, lobster meat.
Pulse: Why do prefer wine at clambake?
MM: Beer is a great option and summer ales and lagers might be obvious pairings for clambakes but I’m a wine drinker. Wine can offer great complimentary flavors as well. It’s a balancing act. You don’t want to overpower the fresh seafood.
Pulse: Can we get you to share your favorite clambake recipe?
MM: East Coast Clambake
Total Time: 1 hr Prep: 30 min Cook: 30 min
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 1⁄2 lbs. Kielbasa
3 cups chopped Spanish onions (2 count)
2 cups chopped leeks
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1⁄2 lbs. small potatoes (red or white)
2 TB Clambake seasoning (or Old Bay Seasoning)
1 bunch of fresh herbs (cilantro or parsley)
2 dozen steamer clams, scrubbed
2 lbs. mussels, cleaned and debearded
1 1⁄2 lbs. large shrimp or scallops
3 (1 1⁄2 lb) lobsters
2 cups of white wine
Salt & pepper
Slice the kielbasa diagonally into 1” slices. Set aside.
In a 16-20qt. stockpot sautée onions and leeks in olive oil over medium heat for 15 minutes, until the onions start to brown.
Layer ingredients on top of the base in order: potatoes, salt and pepper, kielbasa, steamer clams, mussels, shrimp, and lobsters. Pour in white wine and cover pot tightly. Cook over medium-high heat for approximately 15 minutes. Lower the heat to medium and cook another 15 minutes.
Once potatoes are fork-tender and clams and mussels open, cooking is complete. Remove the lobsters onto a wooden board. Split them down the back and crack the claws for service.
Spread the seafood, potatoes, and sausage out on a large, flat surface covered in Kraft paper. Sprinkle the top with fresh, chopped herbs and lemon zest. Serve with ramekins of melted butter and the liquid base at the bottom of the pot.
Enjoy with a glass of the Clambake Chardonnay or Clambake Rosé.