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Once more, to the shore: a stylish take on the New England tradition.
The New England clambake, as the tale goes, is a Native American ritual taught to the early colonists—a gathering ’round a deep pit dug into the sand, filled with the ocean’s bounty, and cooked over steaming hot rocks. A sort of Thanksgiving by the shore. In truth, historian Kathy Neustadt says, the venerable bake didn’t take hold until after the Civil War, when Americans found themselves with time and money on their hands and water-rail lines to get them up the coast to newly minted resorts.
And there, in mid-19th century Rhode Island and Massachusetts, the clambake came into its own, and it has been an American celebration of summertime and leisure time ever since. It is also one of the first ways Dave Pasternak—the New York chef who specializes in fish of all stripes at Esca—cooked seafood. As a boy on Long Island, N.Y., Pasternak says, “We would fish all day and get crab and lobsters and clams. We’d gather seaweed and driftwood, stack the coals, and cover it all with a blanket. It was old school.”
Asked to create a luxurious version for summer 2011, Pasternak added a few flourishes. His shore dinner starts with appetizers to eat while the fire gets hot: creamy burrata cheese with heirloom tomatoes, and bruschetta topped with herbed white beans and salty prosciutto. Nothing too much, because the bake is—as always—almost ridiculously abundant. He begins with a layer of seaweed, then lobsters, potatoes, and sea bass cut into thick steaks. Next goes smoky kielbasa sausage. More seaweed. Then clams, shrimp, corn, and mussels, followed by more sausage. He throws in some vegetables, and fresh herbs and chiles to infuse more flavor, and he covers it all with seaweed and a blanket. “Too bad,” he says, “you can’t eat the blanket.”
It only takes about 40 minutes to steam. “That’s when you hang out,” he says, “have a beer, go for a swim. It’s a very social event, and that’s the best thing.”
These days, fewer and fewer beaches allow fire pits. But it is worth seeking one out. Pasternak’s lobster bake is the ultimate sea-to-table experience. And it is a link to our American past.
As Llewellyn Howland, a native of New Bedford, Mass., wrote in 1947: “All these gifts of God, which have been for the most part cooked in the good earth, seasoned by the salts thereof, uncontaminated by the impurities of civilization, fresh as the dawn, and in such abundance that no one has to bolt his first helping to ensure a second, third, or even a fourth.…”
The CHEF SAYS
“You have to use the local fish. It’s terroir, man. You’re sitting on the beach, looking at the ocean, and you don’t want to be eating fish from Chile or tilapia from the Republic of Congo. There’s something wrong with that. You’re on the Atlantic shore. You should be eating fish from that water, even if you didn’t catch it.”
MENU & RECIPE
Ultimate Lobster Bake
By Dave Pasternak
Esca, New York
Burrata with heirloom tomatoes
White-bean bruschetta with prosciutto
Layers of lobster, crab, clams, mussels & striped bass; with sausages, baby zucchini & corn
Fiore di latte gelati with fresh berries
Ultimate Lobster Bake
5 1½-lb. live lobsters
10 Blue Claw crabs
30 to 40 littleneck or top-neck clams
2 lb. mussels
20 U-10/20 shrimp, shell on (the 10 or 20 per pound size)
1 10-lb. wild striped bass, cleaned and scaled
2 lb. kielbasa
15 ears fresh corn, in husks
6 lb. small Yukon gold potatoes
5 lb. small zucchini
¾ lb. serrano chiles
1 bunch tarragon
8 lb. seaweed (a quarter bushel, harvested from the beach)
Prepare the pit: Dig a 3-by-3-foot hole in the sand in the shape of an inverted cone. Line the interior with rocks. Using driftwood or whatever untreated wood is available, start a strong fire. (Do not use starter fluid.)
While the fire develops, prepare the ingredients: The lobsters should stay whole. Have your fishmonger clean the gills and spine from crabs. Rinse them well before cooking. Wash the mussels and clams well, removing any beards. Leave the shells on the shrimp, but carefully make an incision along the the outsides and remove the veins. Cut the bass into 2-by-2-inch pieces on the bone and toss in olive oil, salt, and pepper just prior to assembly. Cut kielbasa into 1-inch sections.
Trim the corn silks and leaves and cut the cobs in half crosswise. Leave the husks on. Wash and trim the potatoes and zucchini, and leave them whole. Slice the chiles lengthwise twice, leaving them intact at the stem. Toss the potatoes, corn, and zucchini separately in olive oil, salt, and pepper prior to assembly. Last, seaweed should be washed and shaken dry, so that it doesn’t dampen the fire too quickly.
The pit is ready when well-developed embers glow red but have no direct flame. Start with a 3-inch layer of seaweed. Next, layer in this order the lobsters, crabs, bass pieces, and potatoes. Scatter half of the serranos, kielbasa, and zucchini on top of this. Next, place a 2-inch layer of seaweed, followed by the clams and shrimp, and then the corn, mussels, and squash, along with the rest of the serranos and kielbasa. Spread the tarragon across the entirety of the pit and cover with the remaining seaweed. Finally, cover everything with a blanket you don’t mind donating to the cause.
Bake about 40 minutes. To test, taste a piece of corn from the top layer. If cooked, then everything beneath it will be ready.