How to Cook a Clam Bake

A New England clam bake is not a meal you'd prepare for one or two people. It's an all-day event or party perfect for celebrating a family reunion or a gathering of friends on the beach. While you can cut corners and try this in your kitchen, clam bakes are typically held on the beach and served on wooden picnic tables lined with butcher paper. A clam bake is a party of finger foods cooked on the beach.

A typical clam bake menu includes soft shell clams, lobster, corn on the cob, baby potatoes, sweet onions, muscles, beer and some good, crispy bread.

Buy small, live lobsters for your clambake. Buy fresh, live mussels and scrub and debeard them just before cooking.

When buying clams for a clam bake, you'll want to purchase soft shell clams, also called steamers. Tap on each clam to make sure it is still alive. The siphon should shrink back when you tap it. Don't buy any clams that don't respond when tapped. Make sure the clams you buy don't feel too light or too heavy either. You don't want to buy dead clams or clams with an excessive amount of sand inside their shells. Never buy clams that are cracked. The clam inside is most likely dead or dying. Buy more clams than your recipe calls for in case any clams die between the time of purchase and the time of cooking. Do not cook any clam that has died before cook time.

A traditional clam bake requires a lot of physical labor. You'll need to dig a hole in the sand on the beach about three feet deep and about four feet wide. Line the hole with rocks. In the center of the hole, start a fire and let it burn for several hours to heat the rocks. As it burns, keep feeding it with fresh wood and spread the fire across the entire width of the hole, heating all the rocks. When the fire has burned for four or five hours, test the rocks by sprinkling water on the rocks and watch for sizzling on all of the rocks.

Before cooking, rake out all ashes and wood. Spread a layer of wet seaweed on the hot rocks. The layer of seaweed should be about four to five inches thick.

Layer the live lobsters, corn on the cob in the husk and baby potatoes (washed and scrubbed, but with skins) on the seaweed. Cover with a layer of seaweed. Add the mussels and clams, cover with another layer of seaweed and cover the entire hole with a wet piece of tarp. Secure the tarp with heavy stones to keep the steam inside.

The clambake should be left undisturbed for an hour. When you open up the layers, you should find opened clams and mussels, bright red lobsters, tender potatoes and steamed corn on the cob.  Serve this feast on a picnic table with lots of lemon wedges, melted butter, salt and pepper and a loaf of excellent, crispy bread.  Don't forget the beer or chilled white wine.  Enjoy!

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