by April Lisante
When I was a kid, there were two unfortunate summer food truths.
The first: To have a rare treat called s’mores, you had to go to away to camp or go camping with the family.
The second: To experience a clambake, you pretty much had to have your own private beach.
While I’ve solved the s’mores problem with a little firepit I admit to using year-round to make my favorite dessert, I still haven’t purchased that house on the beach yet.
So, I also admit I’ve never experienced a real, live clambake – a meal that happens to include all of my favorite foods in one shot.
The seaside seafood party is the ultimate scrumptious, indulgent goodbye to summer, a Labor Day tradition in New England and beyond, a cornucopia of some of the best summer foods, all wrapped into one meal: lobster, shrimp, sausage, clams, corn and potatoes. The meal steams happily in a sand pit atop charcoals, smothered in damp seaweed.
Thankfully, there is a way to have a clambake before the summer wanes, without having to get a beach permit, dig for hours or lug coolers of seafood down to the shoreline.
For the past few years, Top of the Hill Farmer’s Market and Café owner Challie Gangloff has been throwing a late-summer clam bake of his own for Chestnut Hillers who aren’t Down the Shore. Gangloff, a produce and seafood lover who grew up learning the trade in a family- owned corner grocery store in Northeast Philly, can’t say goodbye to summer without a festive clambake.
This month, a couple hundred seafood lovers crammed the tented area in the lot outside the Market at 184 East Evergreen St. to experience a platter of heaven, a mélange of clams, shrimp, mussels and corn served in a savory cream broth. The Aug. 9 event, which featured live music and local beer and wine, will return in a few weeks (Date to be determined. Check the Top of the Hill Market’s website or Facebook page for updates.)
“People love when we do clambakes. I think people love it because of the weather,” Gangloff said. “While it is still hot, typically, the clambake signals the end of summer going into fall, the best time for seafood. And we pair the food with beer and wine, white wine, that’s perfect.”
But if you are curious about trying it at home, as I was, Gangloff and his executive chef, Johnny Grauman, explained how easy their version of a clambake can be.
“The key is that everything is made fresh that day,” Grauman said. “The freshness of the food is the most important.”
To do a traditional clambake, you have to pretty much set aside the whole day, if a myriad of lengthy You Tube tutorials are any indication. You start with a two-by-four-by-two-foot sand pit, throw in grapefruit-sized rocks, then set up hard wood campfire style on top, allowing it to burn for about two hours until it is reduced to coals. Then it’s time to throw on the food.
To feed about 10 people, it takes about eight pounds of clams, a dozen lobsters, a few pounds of sausage, five pounds of mussels, and four pounds of potatoes. It has to sit for about an hour or two, topped with seaweed or rock weed, to steam under a dampened canvas tarp.
“Fine Cooking” magazine speeds up the process with a 24- inch kettle grill filled with charcoal and topped with seaweed.
But Gangloff has an even easier way to get the same clambake vibe in a fraction of the time, and his includes something a traditional clambake won’t have: a savory sauce.
“The sauce is the best part,” he said. “You need bread and crackers to dip in it.”
Gangloff’s clambake leaves out the lobster and the chorizo sausage, and sticks with mussels, clams and shrimp. He buys the seafood that day and makes sure all the mussels and clams are still closed and, therefore, alive.
“Throw away anything that’s open,” he said.
His method is simple: steam the clams, mussels and shrimp in three separate pots to assure each cooks thoroughly, then combine all three and add to the special sauce. He steams corn and cuts up baguette bread for dipping, and voila, an at-home clam bake. As a rule, he plans for at least five mussels, clams and shrimp for each person.
The Top of the Hill Farmer’s Market and Café End of Summer Clambake
Serves 6-8 people
4 pounds mussels
4 pounds littleneck clams
2 pounds medium shrimp
8 oz. heavy cream
2 sticks butter
4 oz. white wine
2 cloves minced garlic
6-8 ears of corn, steamed
Red pepper flakes, black pepper and salt to taste
In three separate stock pots, bring four inches of water in each to a boil. Drop in shrimp, mussels and clams into their respective pots and steam. Clams and mussels are done when they open. Shrimp should steam approximately five minutes.
Prepare sauce. In a large saucepan, combine heavy cream, butter, white wine and garlic and heat until butter melts and the ingredients incorporate. Sauce should be thick and butter yellow- colored. Add red and black pepper and salt to taste. Place five each clams, mussels and shrimp into individual bowls. Top with sauce until smothered. Serve with baguette slices and steamed ears of corn.