Real Entertaining

Real Entertaining: Hosting a Clambake

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Take the lid off the Weber, throw some briquettes in the chimney starter and light them up. It's time for a . . . clambake?

Unless you happen to have a stretch of beach in your back yard, the grill is the way to go if you wish to approximate the quintessential New England tradition that North American Indians introduced to the Pilgrims.

Outside of areas where its components are indigenous, a clambake is undeniably extravagant. The ingredients are costly ($30 to $40 per person) and cannot be bought or made well ahead of time. Moreover, they require extra attention and special utensils, and are a mess to eat and an even bigger mess to clean up.

And that all adds to its appeal.

A clambake, like a crab feast, speaks of summertime, communion and familiarity. The informality of short sleeves, paper towels and eating with fingers juxtaposes harmoniously with the richness of the fare. It is a democratic event tacitly understood as a not-everyday occurrence and therefore a perfect way to entertain good friends.

A few good friends. A 22 1/2 -inch grill nicely accommodates a dinner for four that includes lobster, clams, mussels, garlic-laced sausage (such as kielbasa, chorizo, andouille or linguica), corn on the cob, red bliss potatoes, cipollini onions and shrimp.

I can hear the New Englanders now: Shrimp, in a clambake? No way.

A clambake is a ritual, a series of actions performed just so, both in the creation of the meal and in its consumption. Participants routinely launch into diatribes about what is correct, and, as this is America, all are right.

Hence the shrimp on the menu. You do ritual your way; I'll do it mine.

Some say the meal must begin with clam chowder and end with watermelon. Fine choices both, but I'm not convinced that such a lavish meal needs an hors d'oeuvre or an appetizer. If anything, perhaps something seasonal to start, such as toothpicks of cherry tomato and fresh mozzarella cubes dressed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, shreds of basil and a sprinkle of fleur de sel.

No bread or other side dish need accompany a clambake; as it is, you'll more than likely be figuring out what to turn the potatoes and onions into the next day. Coleslaw would be the only thing even remotely resembling a green vegetable that might do here, but do you really want to pick up a fork with buttery, lobster-y fingers?

For dessert, how about some homemade peach ice cream with a sauce of fresh cherries and creme de cassis? Those things, unlike the rest of the meal, can be made in advance. That cuts down on prep time on the day of the event, which begins with a trip to the seafood market.

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