Steaming clams in briny broth, the last of the season’s sweet corn, tender potatoes, perfectly charred grilled chicken, maybe a bowl of clam chowder, a lobster or a steak to round out the meal — that’s right, it’s clambake time in Northeast Ohio.
The fall harvest of East Coast clams for generations has found a welcome home near the shores of Lake Erie.
Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of clams will be consumed in Northeast Ohio during the early fall, when the harvest is at its peak. In fact, some contend that Northeast Ohio is the clambake capital of the country.
Most suspect the tradition is linked to pioneers from New England who settled the Connecticut Western Reserve in the early 1800s, bringing a taste for their eastern foods.
But according to the Lake County History Center, the tradition probably came about 100 years later, when trains began running regularly between Ohio and the East Coast and wealthy Cleveland families began bringing clams back from their travels. The tradition grew and spread so that even nonmillionaires could enjoy a clambake.
There’s no question that clams are king here in the fall.
John Dziorney, owner of Bay Lobsters Fish Market & Cafe on Darrow Road in Twinsburg, said he’ll sell more than 20,000 clams during a typical October weekend to wholesale and retail customers — most of them retail sales for folks who want to host their own clambakes.
Dziorney sells a wide variety of clams, but said littleneck (about the size of a quarter), middleneck (about the size of a 50-cent piece) and Boston steamers, a soft shell clam, are his most popular for clambakes. He also offers cherrystones and topnecks.
Because they are the smallest, littlenecks are the most tender. Boston steamers have a skin over the meat that has to be torn off before it can be eaten, but Dziorney said they are becoming more popular because folks eat them when visiting Boston and want to try them at home.
Hosting a clambake at home is easy, and doesn’t require much more than a large stockpot.
Dziorney’s shop has everything you need, from the clams to the stockpots. He also rents stockpots and propane burners for those hosting larger affairs outdoors, and sells all of the other fixings as well, like clam chowder and clarified butter for dunking clams. All clams cost $40 for 100, which is enough to serve eight.
A reliable seafood dealer typically sells clams already scrubbed clean and tied inside mesh bags that are ready for steaming.
Typical clambake menus consist of clams, steamed potatoes or sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, clam chowder and grilled or barbecued chicken. You can add a lobster or steak, or serve them instead of the chicken.
For those who don’t want to do the cooking themselves, there are plenty of places willing to cater one for you.
Chef Bob Sferra, owner of Culinary Occasions Catering, said he will cater several this month, and also hosted two cooking classes, called A Rainy Day Clambake, at his shop in South Euclid.
Sferra said he had to offer the class twice this year to accommodate all who were interested, and he is convinced the popularity has to do with the popularity of clambakes in general.
In the class, Sferra shows how to prepare a clambake inside on the stove, but the recipes would work for cooking outdoors as well.
Building the steam pot “is all about the flavor,” Sferra explained.
In a large pot, he combines clam juice, thyme, garlic, carrots, celery, onion and a small amount of Old Bay Seasoning. The point is to create a liquid that will add flavor to the potatoes and clams as they steam. After, the broth provides the perfect base stock for making clam chowder, he said.
Use small redskin potatoes, or if using large sweet potatoes, Sferra recommends cutting them in half to lessen their cooking time. If your pot is large enough, you can layer the corn on the cob on top of the potatoes, before putting the clams on top.
Discard any clams that don’t open; that means they were dead before going into the pot and aren’t good to eat, he said.
While some purists might insist the chicken should steam in the pot with the clams, Sferra prefers to roast it first, then finish it off with a barbecue sauce on the grill or on a stovetop grill, for a more flavorful chicken than one that’s been steamed.
A large number of restaurants, churches, clubs and social organizations will be offering clambakes this month.
Chef Angus O’Hara of the Galaxy Restaurant in Wadsworth said the restaurant’s annual clambakes are so popular, this year they started hosting them in September and will continue serving them every Friday through the end of the month.
O’Hara said he believes the popularity of clambakes has to do with the art of getting everyone around the table. With diners plucking the clams out, discarding the shells and eating corn with their hands, the meal is a casual, interactive dining experience, and makes for an enjoyable time.
The Galaxy’s clambake, with clams and half a grilled chicken, is $22.99, but diners can just have the option of just clams or just chicken for a lower price, and also can add a lobster to the clambake for $15 more.
O’Hara encourages customers to make a reservation for the clambake because it sells out so quickly and he gets a limited number of clams each week.
“We’re to the point where we’re holding clams for people,” he said.
Now that you’re in the mood for clams, here are Sferra’s recipes for an easy clambake that can be made at home without any special equipment. Round out the meal with steamed corn on the cob, clam chowder, crusty bread, plenty of melted butter for dipping and a nice Pinot Grigio or icy cold beer for washing it down.
3 quarts clam juice (see note)
Several sprigs fresh thyme
1 to 2 ribs celery, broken in half
1 small onion, peeled and quartered
1 to 2 carrots, peeled and cut in half
1 clove garlic
½ tsp. Old Bay Seasoning
2 dozen small red skin potatoes, well-scrubbed, or 6 sweet potatoes, cut in half
6 dozen middleneck clams, scrubbed
Melted butter, for serving
In a large stockpot (3- to 4-gallon capacity) place clam juice, celery, carrot, onion, thyme, garlic and Old Bay Seasoning. Bring to a good simmer over medium heat.
Fit a steamer basket into the pot to fit just above the broth. Add potatoes to steamer insert and layer clams on top. Cover with a tight-fitting lid.
Steam about 15 minutes or longer until clams’ shells have popped open and potatoes are fork tender. Serve clams with melted butter for dipping.
Makes 6 servings.
Notes: If clam juice isn’t available, or you don’t have enough, use water or low-salt chicken broth, or a combination to equal two quarts. Recipe can easily be doubled. For 12 dozen clams, use an 8- to 10-gallon pot, or two smaller stockpots.
— Chef Bob Sferra, Culinary Occasions
PERFECT BARBECUED CHICKEN
2 whole chickens, about 4 lbs. each
1½ tsp. light brown sugar
1½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1½ tsp. sweet paprika
1½ tsp. chile powder
1½ tsp. kosher or sea salt
½ tsp. garlic powder
2 tsp. canola oil
2 bay leaves
Favorite barbecue sauce
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Thoroughly combine the brown sugar, pepper, paprika, chile powder, salt and garlic powder.
Truss the chickens, drizzle with the canola oil and coat on all sides evenly with the spice mixture. Cut the lemons in half and squeeze the juice of the lemons over the chickens. Place two lemon halves and one bay leaf into the cavity of each chicken. Drizzle with olive oil and place in a roasting pan, cover with foil and roast, covered, for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and roast an additional 10 to 15 minutes to crisp the skin.
Allow the chickens to cool enough to handle, then cut each into 8 pieces: 2 each, legs, thighs, breasts and wings.
Build a charcoal fire in an outdoor grill and let burn until covered with white ash. Leave the coals heaped in a mound in the center of the grill. Do not spread out. Sprinkle a handful of wood chips over the coals.
For a gas grill, preheat on high. Turn one burner off, leave the other burners on high. Place wood chips in a metal chip box or wrap the chips in aluminum foil, pierce a few holes in the foil, and place the packet on the heat source.
Arrange the chicken around the cooler, outer perimeter of the grill, not directly over the coals, and cover the grill. For a gas grill, place the chicken over the burner that is turned off. Close the lid.
Cook the chicken, turning once, until golden brown, about 10 to 15 minutes. After 10 minutes add a handful of chips to the fire or heat source. There’s no need to add more briquettes to the charcoal fire.
Lift the cooking rack from the grill with the chicken still on the rack, and set aside. Spread out the coals. Return the rack to the grill. For a gas grill, turn all burners to medium. Arrange the chicken over the entire surface of the cooking rack. Brush the chicken with sauce, turn the chicken, and cover the grill. Cook for 5 minutes. Brush the unglazed side of the chicken, turn, cover and grill until the chicken shows no sign of pink when pierced at the bone, about 5 minutes. Serve immediately.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
— Chef Bob Sferra, Culinary Occasions