You don't have to be on the beach — although that helps — to host your own clambake. Executive chef Karsten Hart of The Castle Hill Inn in Newport, R.I., has been the master and commander of some 30 clambakes in the last two years. And he knows his stuff: His seafoody to-do was voted Rhode Island’s Best Clambake by Rhode Island Monthly. Here, he shows you how to partake in this beloved New England tradition at home.
Say you are at the beach and want to host a clambake. What do you need to do?
Before building your clambake pit, one needs a proper wire basket to place the food in, burlap, a few sailing tarps and lots of wood. The baskets can be custom made and purchased from anysizebasket.com. I suggest purchasing at least two. The rest of the equipment can be found at a local hardware store. Once you have purchased all your equipment, you simply need to dig a hole about 10 feet wide and 3 feet deep. Place enough wood in the hole to fill and light using newspaper and a match.
What about those who don't have sand or aren't at the beach? Can you still do a clambake?
You can still create a clambake pit without sand. At Castle Hill Inn, our clambake is perched well above Grace Kelly beach, where we have no sand, only dirt and rocks. The advantage of building a pit in the earth rather than a beach is that you avoid having sand in your food, which is inevitable when preparing food on a beach. Many catering companies don’t even dig a hole to prepare a clambake, they simply light a fire and use the coals to cook the lobsters.
It's not just clams in your clambake. What else can you toss in there?
We add homemade chorizo, potatoes, corn and lobsters, but you could bury just about anything. This past year we buried a whole pig in the clambake pit and smoked it for four hours before unveiling. It was delicious.
Are clambakes easy to pull off?
There are many variables at play in order to have a successful clambake. We have executed at least 30 clambakes over the last two years and they are never easy to prepare.
Can Rhode Island claim the clambake?
Clambakes are traditional to New England. There are two native Rhode Island tribes, the Narragansett and Wampanoag, who were known for their clambake celebrations. Some historians even state that the clambake may have been one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations.
Castle Hill Clambake
Courtesy of executive chef Karsten Hart
One of my first culinary experiences in New England was at a traditional clambake. Not knowing quite what to expect, I watched attentively. When the tarp was removed, smoke and steam rose from the ground, revealing our culinary treasures. The smell was incredible! The first taste of lobster was sweet, salty and smoky; the best lobster I ever tasted. It was my hope to recreate this dish at home for my wife Deja. Below is our version of a traditional New England clambake. The smoked seaweed adds a salty-smoky flavor to the broth similar to a traditional clam bake. Enjoy!
Preparation time: 1 hour
Cooking time: 20 minutes
2 tbsp. butter
3 shallots, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
20 littleneck clams, washed
1 tsp. red chili flakes
4 links chorizo (Portuguese sausage), cut into 1-inch pieces
4 ears corn, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 lb. fingerling potatoes, blanched for five minutes in boiling water
3 cups rock seaweed, lightly grilled
2 cups vinho verde (Portuguese white wine)
3 lobsters (1.5 pounds each) steamed for 5 minutes in gently boiling water
3 cups fresh clam juice
2 tbsp. parsley, chopped
1 tbsp. butter
Freshly ground black pepper
2 whole baguettes
Add butter to a large braising pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add shallots and garlic. Simmer for 3 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Add littlenecks, chili flakes, chorizo, corn, fingerling potatoes, seaweed, vihno verde and lobsters. Cook for an additional 2 minutes. Add clam juice, cover with a lid and cook over medium heat for 4 minutes. After 4 minutes, add chopped parsley, butter and black pepper. Simmer for 1 minute. Serve in warm bowls with lots of sliced baguette to soak up all the juices!