White has had a somewhat unorthodox career path. The CIA-trained chef rose to fame in the 1980s, introducing diners to New England cooking at his refined Boston restaurant, Jasper's. In 1991, White won a James Beard award and cemented his reputation as one of the pioneers of American regional cuisine. But 12 years later, he closed Jasper's, taking five years off to write cookbooks.
In 2000, White burst back onto the scene with a new concept: the Summer Shacks, of which there are now two in the Boston area and one in Connecticut. These large, high-octane versions of roadside New England clam shacks serve no-frills, high-quality seafood-local steamers, plump oysters, freshly steamed lobsters. The decor is casual, the atmosphere loud and boisterous, and White is having more fun than ever. "It's about rolling up your sleeves and having a good time," he says, flashing his trademark sly grin.
Epicurious asked White to share his expertise on a quintessential New England institution: the clambake. "It's a great tradition that's been passed down for thousand and thousands of years," he says, explaining that the technique originated with the Native Americans. His recipes will allow you to bring the traditions home, even if you're miles from a beach.
Soft-shell clams, or steamers, have been a summer favorite for generations of New Englanders. A separate species from hard-shell varieties such as cherrystones or littlenecks, steamers have a sweet, delicate flavor that's best appreciated with a simple accompaniment of melted butter.
Because they live on the ocean floor, steamers contain sand, which should be purged before cooking. (Those from mud flats, rather than sand, will be less gritty.) The traditional method is to soak them in salted water with a little cornmeal, supposedly encouraging them to spit out the grit. But White calls this method "useless-it doesn't do anything." Instead, he recommends repeated tossing in successive pails of cold water until the water remains clean. This can take as many as six or seven washings; handle the steamers gently to avoid cracking their shells. When submerging the steamers in the water, watch for any that float-this means that they're already dead and should be discarded. (Note that when preparing mussels, the opposite is true: They clamp shut tightly, trapping air in the shell, and therefore should float when alive. Discard any that sink.)
Even after washing, some grit will remain. So, each diner should be provided with a small bowl of the cooking broth for rinsing the steamers. To eat one, open the shell and remove the entire body. (You may have to pry a tiny, round muscle loose from the shell.) The siphon, or "neck," will be covered with a brown membrane that should be removed. To do so, grasp the base of the siphon between your thumb and forefinger and dig your fingernails under the edge of the membrane. Pull upward, peeling off the membrane. (Underneath, the siphon will be brown-black and shiny.) There may also be a thin strand of the same membrane extending down to the body-this should be removed and discarded as well.
Once the membrane is removed, grasp the steamer by the siphon and swish it around in the broth, squeezing the siphon to rinse out any grit. (Try turning the siphon upside down to look for grit trapped on its underside.) Then shake off any excess broth, dip the steamer in melted, lemony butter, and eat!
When to Eat Lobster
Like plants, lobsters have seasons. In the late winter, they're fairly dormant, and few are caught. This means that most lobsters sold between February and April come from large holding tanks where they've been kept for some time. The time in captivity can lead to blander flavor, and scarcity leads to higher prices. All in all, late winter is not the best time to buy lobster.
In the spring, prices drop as the supply grows, and quality is good as lobsters are freshly caught. Starting in July, lobsters begin to shed their shells, exposing a new, not-yet-hard shell underneath. These soft-shell lobsters, the majority of the catch in the summer, are popular for their sweet meat and easy-to-crack exteriors. But they have less meat per pound (the shell is larger to leave them room to grow) and can be slightly more watery.
In the late fall (October through January), lobster quality is at its peak. The shells have hardened and are full of flavorful meat. This season is the favorite of connoisseurs.
Buying and Storing Shellfish
The most important factors when buying shellfish are liveliness and storage. Mussels should clamp shut when pressed, steamers should draw in their necks (although they may not shut completely), and lobsters should hold up their claws and tails. Once you've bought lively shellfish, the key is preserving their condition until cooking.
Shellfish should be bought as close to cooking as possible - ideally on the same day. After purchasing, get them into the refrigerator quickly. Store lobsters wrapped in damp newspaper, but not on ice. Steamers and mussels can be stored on ice, and should be kept moist by covering loosely with a damp towel or newspaper. Avoid airtight containers that don't allow the mollusks to breathe, and be sure that water doesn't collect in the bottom of the container, drowning the bottom ones.
After cooking, discard any mussels that haven't opened. Steamers may not open completely (they have a thin membrane that keeps their shells partially shut), but they should not be clamped fully shut. If they are, discard.
In the Weeds
At a traditional clambake, the ingredients are layered with a sea vegetable called rockweed. This plant, which grows along the shore of the North Atlantic, has small pockets filled with seawater. These burst during cooking, adding moisture and the flavor of the ocean.
In White's at-home clambake, he uses rockweed to line the pot. It helps to prop up the mesh bags and adds authentic flavor. If you live near New England, you can ask your fishmonger to sell you some of the seaweed-it's used to pack shellfish, and so is often abundant at seafood markets. If rockweed is unavailable, feel free to use a regular steamer rack instead.
Sarah Kagan has been with Epicurious.com for more than five years and has been the site's food editor for the past two years. She has worked as an editor at culinary publications for a total of nearly ten years. She has written for the Zagat guides and Food Arts magazine, among others, and has appeared as a television cooking expert on MSNBC and NY1.
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