Campfire clambake

Having lived for two years in the gorgeous city of Boston, I was always tempted to make a New England-style clambake in some great location like Martha’s vineyard or Province town. Before I could conquer this feat, my stint in Beantown was cut short as I was offered a position that brought me to San Francisco. 

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Fast-forward a few years, and a group of our friends decided to head south to Fernwood in Big Sur for some well-deserved R&R. Having been thinking about the clambake for some time now, I decided this would be a great opportunity to try it out. On the day of our trip, I visited our neighborhood seafood store, Sun Fat, in the Mission district, and picked up a couple of lobsters and a pound of clams. This is my go-to shop as their stock is fresh, the variety somewhat abundant and the price just right. I also like our nearby Bi-Rite market, but their prices can be quite steep, especially when it comes to proteins. 

I can’t stress how important it is to pack the seafood inside a cooler with enough ice to withstand the trip. In this case I added an unopened bag of ice as the first layer, followed by the seafood and covered by another small bag of ice. Additionally, make sure to add enough space around the seafood while not crushing it with the ice. This is so the clams can breathe otherwise they could kick the bucket before making it to your destination. 

Tip: When cooking at home, unwrap and place them in a dry bowl before storing them in the refrigerator.

We arrived to the campground with some decent daylight left , but just before putting together our tents, we made a b-line towards the libations area, starting with some beer to celebrate our two and a half hour journey down the famous Highway One.

Fearing the waining daylight and a possible nag from my woodsy sidekick, I put the beer aside and got to work. The end result was fantastic and a huge crowd-pleaser. Seriously, when was the last time you ate freshly killed lobster in your campsite? 
While this recipe is my slight variation from some originals, below is how it was prepared, starting with the base:

The base

  • 3-4 Banana leaves or seaweed (if available). Banana leaves can typically be found in Hispanic markets, such as Evergreen in the Mission 
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 large red bell pepper, sliced in 1/4th of an inch slices
  • 1 small container of cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 5-6 garlic cloves, crushed and diced
  • 1/2 to 1 Spanish chorizo, sliced in 1/4th of an inch pieces. If using Mexican chorizo, reduce quantity given their potency. Sausages are also optional and encouraged
  • Fresh herbs: oregano, 2 sprigs of rosemary, chopped parsley and thyme
  • 1 bay leaf (optional)
  • 1 lemon, juice squeezed (optional)
  • Olive oil
  • Butter
  • White wine
  • Container: 1 large aluminum pan with lid

The goods

  • 8 baby red potatoes, non-peeled and cut in halves. Yellow or white potatoes or a combination of all will also work; however, avoid purple potatoes given their added sweetness
  • 2 small lobsters, about a pound each
  • ~1 pound of clams. Adding mussels is optional
  • 2 corns on the cob, without their husks

Servings: 8+
Duration: Including prep time, about 1 hour and change. Ready in 2 hours.

Step 1

Please bear with me as this part is important…

  1. Scrub the shells with a brush under running water or in a water bowl to remove any dirt, this includes barnacles and any sand attached to the exterior. 

    Tip: In the case of mussels, you’ll need to remove their beards with a dry towel by tugging each one towards the hinge end of the mollusk. Do this just prior to cooking them as it could potentially harm the mussels.

  2. If you spot any broken or damaged shells, go ahead and discard.
  3. All shells should be closed tightly but if you see any open ones this means that they might be dead. To double-check, tap the shell on its outer surface and if the clam is still alive, it’ll close the shell on its own.
  4. Before cooking, soak the clams and/or mussels in fresh cold water for about 30 minutes. Add about a tablespoon of cornmeal or flour to entice the little guys to open up their shells. In doing this they breathe, filter water and expel any extra salt and sand from inside their shells.
  5. Transfer the clean clams to a different bowl containing clean and cold water. You can do this with your hands or with a tong instead of pouring them from the dirty bowl to the clean one. This is to avoid any sand being transmitted from one to the other.

Step 2

First things first, make sure you have a nice fire going and your coals are heating up before getting your prep underway. If you have a sober-enough friend with you, he or she can get that started for you as you take on the bake.

To create a flavorful base to pour over the clams and lobster, find a decent hot spot on the grill where you can sauté the garlic and onions with a mixture of butter and a bit of olive oil inside the aluminum pan. Keep stirring ever so often. 

After some caramelization, add some salt and black pepper to taste, chorizo (and/or sausages), red bell pepper, lemon juice and some white wine or light beer (about a cup), stir again while adding the fresh herbs to let the juices mix until the peppers are somewhat soft before removing the pan from the fire. 
In this case, I took some of our drinking Sauvignon Blanc, which works perfectly with seafood. 

Towards the very end, add the tomatoes so they don’t overcook, but still take on the flavor. Pour your base inside a clean bowl and set aside.

Step 3

Time to fill up your wine cup and take in the scenery. Continue on…

Step 4

There is no real need to wipe down the remaining base from the pan before placing the banana leaves at the bottom of the pan, after all you are in the woods! Cover the base and sides of the pan with the leaves so there are no gaps in between. 

Now, distribute the lobsters, potatoes and the corns on the cob, followed by the clams. A good distribution without packing them in too tightly will enable the steam to flow well inside the pan. Alternatively, you can place the clams in first.

Finally, pour the base all over the seafood as shown below. For this type of recipe, you’ll need to ‘take care’ of the lobsters about a minute before placing them in so they don’t move around inside the pan and lift the lid. Feel free to add a few dashes of white wine for added moisture. 

Step 5

Cover the pan tightly with the aluminum lid and place on a decent hot spot on your fire pit. Maintain and stoke the fire from time to time to keep a consistent temperature and let it steam for for about 45 minutes to 1 hour (depending on the quantity) before setting aside. Serve with bread to soak up all that delicious sauce.

Lessons learned

I’ve heard of some recipes that include the clams as the first layer with the lobsters on top. I am going to try that next time to see if it makes any difference. Also, as you can tell from the following image, we ended up eating just at nightfall, but was it ever worth it. Plan your time wisely so you can really take in the colors with the flavors of your clambake. 

Enjoy and let us know if you tried it.
: Jaime

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