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8/12/2011 Update: Julia has picked a favorite photo! Take a look to see some shellfish action.
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We eat a lot of lobster at my house. Not because I’m super fancy, but because I know a guy who can get them for me real cheap and he usually owes me a favor. (Nothing too shady—he’s my husband and a fishmonger.)
Over the years, I’ve cooked more than my fair share of lobsters: steamed (always good), boiled (not a fan; it washes out their flavor), grilled (not bad, but a little dry), pan-roasted (tasty but very messy), and baked in a “lazy man’s” casserole (my husband’s favorite—enough said). Yet my all-time favorite way to cook these little sea buggers is in a pot on top of the stove alongside clams, mussels, corn, sausage, and red potatoes—an indoor clambake.
Truth be told, I’ve never been to a real clambake where the food is buried in the beach with hot rocks, but I’m not sure I’m really missing anything foodwise except maybe a fine lacing of sand on my plate. The theory behind clambake cookery—the clams, corn, potatoes, sausage, and lobster are cooked together and share their flavors—seems to work just as well in the kitchen. Not to mention that a real clambake takes a day or more to prepare (digging the pit sounds like a real chore) and hours to cook, whereas my indoor version is a one-pot deal and takes less than an hour from start to finish. Plus, my version makes you look like a rockstar in front of guests.
I developed this recipe for indoor clambake in the Test Kitchen nearly 10 years ago. I remember testing several other clambake recipes I found before coming up with this version. The thing that struck me about the other recipes was the amount of unnecessary prep work they required. Some recipes went so far as to partially cook each ingredient separately before combining them, which is downright crazy. The coolest thing about an indoor clambake is the actual lack of work it requires… plus the rockstar thing.
CHOOSE A POT
For this clambake, you won’t need a shovel or any beach dudes to help dig a pit (the recipe’s only downside, in my opinion), but you do need the right pot. A Dutch oven works OK for small clambakes, but I’ve had better luck over the years using a tall, narrow stockpot. You want the ingredients to be layered into the pot in a particular order, and a narrow pot makes this easier.
In our house, there is a running debate on whether lobsters should be killed before being cooked. I am in favor of killing them first—it feels more respectful. My husband argues, however, that this is nothing more than a messy waste of time and refuses to do it. (Note that people who are really into the ethical treatment of lobsters agree with me.) Either way, we both like to mellow the lobsters out before handling them; I do this in the freezer for 10 minutes, while my husband likes to put them to sleep by petting them between the eyes (a fishmonger party trick). Also, be sure to leave the bands on their claws until they’re dead—you only make this mistake once.
The success of this recipe hinges on how the ingredients are layered into the pot. It’s like a Rube Goldberg sketch in that one thing leads to another—more on this in a minute, but just be sure to follow along closely here. First, lay the sliced sausage over the bottom of the pot, and then add the mussels and clams. It’s nice to wrap the clams and mussels in cheesecloth sack for easy removal, but I sometimes skip this step when I’m in a rush. Next, you add the red potatoes that have been cut into 1-inch chunks, followed by the corn, which still have one layer of husk left on them. The husks help to keep the corn clean from the drippy lobster schmutz. Finally, lay the freshly killed lobsters on the top and cover the pot. Of course, you do this OFF the heat. Just saying.
Once the pot is assembled and covered, simply put it over high heat (or medium-high heat if you have a killer stove with impressive BTUs) and cook until the potatoes are tender, 17 to 20 minutes. That’s it. Really. Don’t be tempted to add any liquid to the pot—just trust me. What happens inside the pot is this: The heat hits the sausage, which begins to sizzle and sear. The heat then works its way up to the clams and mussels, which begin to cook and release their liquid. The liquid drips onto the bottom of the hot pot, turns to steam, then steams the potatoes, corn, and lobsters. When the heat hits the lobsters, they then release their liquid, which not only creates more steam but also bastes everything in sweet briny, lobster jus. The potatoes will be the last thing to cook through, so be sure take the pot off the heat as soon as they’re done.
Nothing needs to rest here, so go ahead and unload the pot onto a large platter straight away. (Note that sometimes the bottom of the pot gets a little “pitted” from the briny steaming liquid.) There will be a good amount of liquid left in the bottom of the pot, and I like to serve this alongside the melted butter for dipping. Don’t forget to set the table with lobster cracking tools and plenty of napkins. Some cold beer won’t hurt either.