As a native New Yorker, many of my childhood years were spent seaside — countless summers along the Long Island Sound, eyeing the sand for crabs and learning the proper way to eat every type of clam imaginable. Raw, briny little necks, also known as quahogs, native to the area were my favorite. I could — and still can — eat dozens of them; fresh, ice cold, and, while most folks add a dab of horseradish, I prefer them undressed. I actually have a great affinity for pretty much any type of seafood possible.
When my maternal grandparents retired to South Florida, frequent visits introduced me to a whole new world of seafood, including alligator (which does kind of taste like chicken). And when my ex-husband and I lived for a while in Puerto Rico during one of his international assignments (thanks Procter & Gamble!), the waters of the Caribbean offered up one of my most favorite crustaceans of all: the spiny lobster, a relative of the North American lobster, minus the large meaty claws. It’s difficult to find spiny lobsters in the market here, but their North American cousins are plentiful, actually a bit sweeter and a staple in one of my favorite ways to entertain: the New England lobster/clambake.
The lobster/clambake is a tradition older than America itself. According to folklore, settlers learned about lobsters from the Native Americans, who taught them how to cook the shellfish in pits dug into the sand on the beach. The pits were lined with hot coals before lobsters, clams and mussels were added, and the whole lot was covered with wet seaweed before being steamed to perfection. Nowadays you can more simply mimic the method at home in a pot on the stove.
Seafood bakes or boils are popular in many regions based on the species available, as they provide super fun, casual and convivial social occasions. In Louisiana, you’ll find crawfish boils, although for as little meat as those critters have to offer, I personally think it’s hardly worth the work. Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay blue crab feasts are great fun; long tables are covered with paper and each participant is given a wooden mallet for whacking the Old Bay Seasoning-laden crabs into submission. In South Carolina, its oysters are roasted over hot coals, unceremoniously dumped out onto tables and enjoyed with cocktail sauce, hot sauce and sleeves of saltine crackers.
If the thought of all of that boiling and steaming — not to mention having to play the part of lobster slayer — leaves you feeling a bit queasy, then let Lobsta Bakes of Maine, which is actually located right here in Newtown, do all the heavy lifting for you. Maine native Kevin Smith and his team can provide an authentic New England-style Lobster Bake for events from as few as 25 to more than 1,000 people with their custom-made lobster steamer. The seafood is flown in fresh daily, and in addition to the traditional lobster, clams, potatoes and corn, Smith’s menu also offers surf and turf, king crab legs and side dishes like New England clam chowder, crab cakes and cocktail shrimp. Lobsta Bakes is also the place for all the fixings to prepare your own bake at home. Just call ahead (513-561-0444; lobstabakes.com) and Smith will have all the raw ingredients ready for you.
Recipe provided by Ilene Ross
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, coarsely chopped
8 small Yukon Gold potatoes cut in half
13 ounces kielbasa or other smoked sausage, cut on the bias into 2-inch pieces
2 ears corn, cut into thirds
2 lbs. clams
12 ounces beer
2 1½-pound lobsters
Instructions: In a large stockpot, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add chopped onion and sweat until translucent, about 6 minutes. Add potatoes and sausage and stir to combine. Add corn, clams, mussels and beer and bring to a simmer. Once beer is simmering, add lobsters to pot and cover tightly with a lid. Cook until clams are open and lobster is bright red, about 18 minutes.
Remove lobster from pot, crack claw and slice in half. Place potatoes, kielbasa, corn and clams into a large serving dish. Taste cooking liquid and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with crusty bread, salad, lemon wedges and drawn butter for dipping the shellfish.
On Wednesdays, the Anchor offers a lobster bake for two to six people ($50-$140) featuring steamed lobsters, blue crab, shrimp, mussels, clams, corn, boiled potatoes and local Eckerlin sausages. East Coast fans can season their dinner with classic Old Bay, while West Coast peeps can opt for Lawry’s Seasoned Salt. If your appetite can’t handle such a gargantuan feast, keep Anchor’s excellent lobster roll in mind, especially on Tuesday, when it’s only $20. RSVP to 513-421-8111; theanchor-otr.com.
Washington Platform heads to Washington Park on Sunday, June 14 for an old-fashioned community clambake. This beach-themed extravaganza will feature games, Cajun music from Robin Lacy & DeZydeco and steamy seafood. For $12, you’ll get a bowl of baked clams, shrimp, mussels, potatoes, corn on the cob and a dinner roll. Noon-8 p.m. washingtonplatform.com; washingtonpark.org.
Thursday nights, East End Creole restaurant Swampwater Grill serves up a wide array of boiled seafood specialties. Choose from a Cajun crab boil with two sides ($19.99; 1.5 pounds) or a Louisiana-style crawfish boil ($18.99; 1.5 pounds of crawfish, potato, sausage, corn and lemon) with sides like bayou-inspired red beans and rice, jambalaya or homemade mac and cheese. With happy hour until 7 p.m., and chargrilled oysters on special from 6 p.m. to close, grab an Abita and indulge. swampwatergrill.com.