I recently explored the wide world of chowders and it got me thinking. Chowder is wonderfully summery and satisfying, but what happens when there’s a dozen friends in the backyard or on the beach and it’s time to eat? You’d have to make a lot of chowder to handle a crowd that size. Even so, it feels like a hot summer afternoon with friends calls for something more communal, more varied, and frankly more...messy.
It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate or complicated. We’re still talking about simple summer dining. I just think that kind of situation is perfect for foods that let you dig right in with hands, mallets, and gobs of melted butter.
Here are five seafood crowd pleasers perfect for summer.
The notion of a New England clambake is actually older than New England itself. Evidence of Native Americans cooking seafood on the beach dates back over 2000 years. Because they didn’t have the technology to make huge cooking vessels, they dug pits in the sand. It is thought they passed that knowledge on to the Pilgrims, although that method of cooking wasn’t found in any literature until the late 18th century. No matter the origin, a clambake is a festive way to enjoy the coastal bounty with lots of friends.
If you’re going for traditional you’ll need a fire pit, some stones, and lots of seaweed. The stones line the bottom of the pit, and a fire is built. After a couple hours, the stones are hot enough to “spit water back at you”. The coals are raked off and a layer of seaweed is applied. Cheesecloth packets of lobster, clams, potatoes, corn, and onions are placed on the pile and then covered with more seaweed. The pit is covered with a wet tarp and left alone until the potatoes are soft and the seafood is cooked, around two hours.
If you find yourself without a fire pit or four hours of cooking time, no sweat. It’s only a slight modification to a lobster boil. Replace the fire pit with a lobster pot or Dutch oven with a steamer basket and give yourself around 20 minutes of cooking time. It may not be as festive and hard-core as the clambake, but it’s just as delicious.
(Note: for some reason, the clambake is really popular in Ohio, where chicken and sweet potatoes are added. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I’m willing to give it a shot.)
Let’s get this out of the way - there are no frogs in Frogmore stew. It’s not really even a stew. It is, however, loaded with shrimp, sausage, and corn on the cob. Thought to have been created in the 1960’s by a shrimper named Richard Gay, the dish is named after a small community on St. Helena Island off the coast of South Carolina.
Today it’s known more colloquially as a Low-country boil, but the recipe has stayed essentially the same. A southern summer staple, Frogmore stew takes advantage of the season’s wild-caught shrimp and dining outdoors.
Assembly is simple - bring a large pot of water to the boil, add spices and sausage, then corn and finally shrimp. Once the mixture is cooked through (which only takes a few minutes), it is drained. Typically, more spices are added and the contents are emptied onto a table covered in newspaper. People grab a plate and start picking off the pile. It may get a bit messy, so have lots of napkins at the ready.
From its beginnings way back in the 7th century, bouillabaisse has always been meant for groups of people to share.
Created by fishermen in Marseille, France, this seafood stew was made from the least desirable fish caught, leaving higher-quality fish to be sold to local restaurants. Locally that meant using rockfish, monkfish, sea urchins...whatever could be spared for a meal.
In the traditional Marseille recipe, the seafood would be cleaned in sea water then cut into chunks, leaving the bones intact. Onions, garlic, and tomatoes were sauteed in olive oil for several minutes in a large casserole. Once the mixture was fragrant, the seafood was added in order of thickness to make sure nothing was overcooked. Salt, pepper, fennel, and herbs flavored the mixture. Once completed, a rouille was prepared - garlic paste, olive oil, egg yolk, and saffron were mixed to form a kind of mayonnaise. This rouille is slathered on freshly-toasted bread and served alongside platters of the stew and boiled potatoes. Other versions of bouillabaisse incorporated cognac or orange peel.
Making this iconic dish for crowds today can be a much simpler affair. Modern recipes include lobster and shellfish, the rouille can be skipped if you’re not into it, and pretty much any fish you like can be incorporated. The secrets to a great bouillabaisse at home are simple - use the best olive oil and freshest seafood you possibly can, and add your seafood from thickest to thinnest when cooking to prevent overcooking small pieces of seafood. Chill down several bottles of Picpoul de Pinet or Muscadet, cut up some thick slices of bread, and head for the sunshine.
When making this, don’t stress. Simple is better. As Julia Child wrote in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, “You can make as dramatic a production as you want out of a bouillabaisse, but remember it originated as a simple, Mediterranean fisherman’s soup.”
Maryland Crab Feast
Chesapeake Bay is loaded with blue crabs. All along Maryland’s coastline, crab shacks serve up these tasty crustaceans in sandwiches, cakes, and salads. When it comes to summer dining, however, picnic and patio tables everywhere set up for a good ol’ Maryland Crab Feast.
All the locals know the secret to a proper feast is steaming the crabs, not boiling them, which can make the meat tough and chewy. Crab pots have a removable inner basket which keeps the contents from touching the liquid at the bottom of the pot. Typically water mixed with a little vinegar is used to create the steam, although beer is frequently incorporated for flavor. The crabs are liberally seasoned with a salty-spice mix, the most popular being the famous Old Bay Spice made in the region. The pot is covered, and the steaming begins.
After twenty minutes or so, the bright red crabs are put on platters and served. Small wooden mallets and serrated knives are provided to crack, smash, cut...whatever is needed to get to the sweet, succulent meat inside. Sides of coleslaw and corn on the cob round out the meal. Have plenty of cold beer on-hand, and leave yourself a few hours - it takes a fair amount of crabs to satisfy an appetite.
Essentially a fish stew, Cioppino hails from San Francisco and dates back to the late 1800’s. Italian fishermen who relocated to the area from the port city of Genoa would contribute a portion of whatever their catch of the day was to a central pot to help feed those who came back empty-handed that day. Everything was then simmered with fresh tomatoes and white wine. It was served in broad bowls with toasted slices of fresh, heavy bread for sopping up the broth.
Because there was no set recipe, the kinds of seafood found in Cioppino varied. It usually included mussels, squid, clams, Dungeness crab, scallops...whatever came out of the Pacific that morning. The broth used to cook the seafood can be made of seafood stock mixed with a bright Italian white wine like Pinot Grigio or Orvieto.
If you like things a bit spicy, sprinkle a pinch or two of crushed red pepper at the end. Make sure to have several bottles of chilled white wine on hand, and take your time enjoying this satisfying seafood melange with friends.