Creating the Perfect Clambake
Woodman's of Essex and Vinwood Caterers give their expert advice on hosting the ultimate summer clambake.
Photo by Jared Charney
Is there anything more quintessential North Shore than a clambake on a perfect summer day? It certainly sounds like an ideal way to kick off the season, but what precisely is a clambake? It was with great anticipation and the promise of several months of warm weather and sunshine ahead that I turned to two of the North Shore’s premier clambake experts for the answer. Woodman’s of Essex is no stranger to clambakes—or lobsters, or steamers, or mussels…you get the idea. A fixture in the region since 1914, Woodman’s has received countless locals and visitors who have happily stood in line for a chance to place their order. Armed with the cursory knowledge that a clambake usually includes a 1¼-pound lobster, but admittedly lacking the confidence to cook it, I set out to discover the menu must-haves for a New England clambake. Traditionally, a clambake almost always includes lobster, clams, corn, and watermelon for dessert, says Maureen Woodman, director of catering sales at Woodman’s. Clambakes are “social food,” and this is one of the goals of Woodman’s clambakes, where the aim is to “bring an interactive kitchen to your yard,” says Woodman.
Director of Catering Sales at Woodman's, Maureen Woodman
Photo by Elise Sinagra
This culinary season heats up each year at the end of May, and is a popular choice for college graduations and Father’s Day celebrations, says Jami Barry, culinary and creative director at Vinwood Caterers in Ipswich. The clambake season runs strong through August, and clambakes are often served for both private and corporate functions. September closes out the season, but it will come as little shock to New Englanders that this can be the most beautiful time of the year to dine alfresco.
Over the years, the menu at Woodman’s has expanded, and the clambake is no exception. From clam chowder to fried clams in a clam cone to salads, chicken, ribs, desserts, and more, you would have to try arduously to request something they can’t accommodate. Perhaps you are interested in hosting a clambake but don’t have the space? Woodman’s offers several on-site locations at their restaurant, and none of them require you to do anything more labor-intensive than tie a lobster bib around your neck. Prefer to host at home? Vinwood and Woodman’s will quite literally bring an entire clambake to you (Woodman’s has the longtime motto “We come to you and cook”). Woodman’s will even mail you a clambake. From setup to cleanup, everything is taken care of (including taking the trash when they depart).
Junio Machado, Rick Delisle, Jami Barry, and Raphael Liberty of Vinwood
Photo by Elise Sinagra
What’s a clambake without a refreshing cocktail to complement it? Barry recommends Vinwood’s Summer Berry Bourbon Lemonade as a partner to this seaside-inspired meal. Vinwood serves these cool sippers in glass mason jars with straws that reflect the relaxed vibe of the menu.
More of a landlubber? Both Vinwood and Woodman’s offer an abundance of possibilities, including Vinwood’s bourbon and molasses–glazed chicken. The barbequed chicken and grilled marinated steak tips at Woodman’s are also common add-on items. Woodman says the clambake has always been gluten-free, welcome news to people with this dietary restriction. Other additions, including Woodman’s clam chowder, are gluten-free as well. Vegetarian dishes are available, and both businesses are happy to create custom menus around specific dietary needs.
Where are clambakes held? Customarily on the beach, but local public beaches that allow clambakes are in short supply these days (although you can still catch a break at some locations along the North Shore). Thanks to modern innovations, clambakes are portable and can easily be held “under a tent, on a boat, or somewhere else outdoors,” says Barry. Private beaches, residences, and yards with ample space remain top choices. Both Vinwood and Woodman’s have organized clambakes where the food is cooked outside and set up indoors (which is especially helpful if it happens to be a rainy-weather day).
Top-quality seafood is a given, but how do you know if the seafood is actually fresh? For steamers, “the tighter they are, the fresher they are,” says Woodman. The same holds true for mussels and for lobster—you want to look for liveliness and movement.
Photo by Elise Sinagra
While everyone agrees the seafood must be top-notch, some insist their favorite hot sauce is a must-try, while others always save room for dessert. Woodman says “pickup sweets” are a good selection so people can enjoy a treat while mingling, but adds that Woodman’s has organized everything from whoopie pies to ice cream trucks. Vinwood is also no stranger to unique desserts and side items and has arranged a variety of items including popcorn stands and cotton candy carts.
Whether you find yourself the chef, the diner, or both this summer, best wishes for a wonderful summer season, filled with sun and as many clambakes as you can fit into your calendar.
Steamers: How to Steam ’Em
Served with their own broth, Essex clams are the best steamers in the world. Look for longnecks that are between 21/2 and 3 inches in diameter.
1/2 pound per person (appetizer portion)
1 1/2 pounds per person (entrée portion)
1/4 c. water
1. After they’ve been allowed to soak, gently pour the clams into a colander and give them a final rinse.
2. Next, place them in a pot. The clams will make their own juice, so add just enough water (1/4 cup) to cover the bottom of the pot. Cover and turn the heat to high. When the water begins to boil, remove the cover and reduce the heat.
3. Leave the cover off and return the heat to high until it boils gain. Vary between low and high heat five or six more times, or until the clamshells are completely open and the bellies look firm—about 8 to 10 minutes. The clams should be easy to remove from their shells. You can tell if they’re ready by removing one and feeling the belly for tenderness.
Steamers: How to Eat ’Em
1. Pull the black turtleneck-like skin off the clam’s “neck.”
2. Dunk the clam into the broth to rinse.
3. If you like, you can also dunk it into a cup of melted butter or vinegar.
4. Relish the results!
Summer Berry Bourbon Lemonade
Makes 1 drink
Bursting with sweet summer berry flavors, freshly squeezed lemon, and smooth bourbon, this cocktail is certain to become one of your go-to summer drinks.
Photo by Elise Sinagra
> 2 oz. bourbon
> 2 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
> 1 oz. berry puree, strained*
> 1 oz. simple syrup
> Dash of aromatic bitters
> Sparkling wine top-off
> Mint, fresh berries, and lemon slices for garnish
1. Mix all the ingredients except the sparkling wine over ice and shake. Top with a healthy splash of sparkling wine.
2. For a cute serving idea, use mason jars and colorful straws, and garnish with sprigs of mint, fresh berries, and lemon slices.
*Make berry purée by smashing fresh blackberries, blueberries, or raspberries using a muddler or the back of a wooden spoon. Strain and measure an ounce of the liquid.
Kicky Skillet Cornbread
Crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, and kicked up with jalapeño.
> 1 c. yellow cornmeal, plus 1-2 Tbsp.
> 1 c. all-purpose flour
> 1 Tbsp. baking powder
> 1 tsp. salt
> 1 c. milk
> 1/3 c. melted butter
> 1 large egg, beaten
> 1/3 c. canned creamed corn
> 2 green onions, chopped
> 1 jalapeño, seeded and chopped
> 1 c. grated cheddar cheese
> 1-2 Tbsp. bacon drippings or vegetable oil
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Place a 10-inch cast iron skillet in the oven to preheat.
2. In a medium bowl, mix 1 cup corn meal, flour, baking powder, and salt. In a small bowl whisk the milk, butter, and egg together. Add to the flour mixture and stir just until blended. Stir in the creamed corn, green onions, jalapeño, and cheddar cheese.
3. Remove the hot skillet from the oven and add 1-2 tablespoons of bacon drippings to the pan to melt. Sprinkle with 1-2 tablespoons of cornmeal, or just until the bottom of the pan is covered. Place back in the oven and bake just until the cornmeal begins to brown, about 3-4 minutes. Add the batter to the skillet and bake for 25-30 minutes or until the top is lightly browned and the edges are pulling away from the side of the skillet. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Wooman's of Essex
121 Main St., Essex, 978-768-6057
3 Union St., Ipswich, 978-356-3273