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Shrimp, clams, mussels, potatoes and corn — combined in a large paella pan — are part of a clambake for 12. (Credit: John Ross)

“Gather a lot of stones and lay close together. Gather driftwood and lay it on these stones and build a really good hot fire. Meanwhile, nearby dig an 18-inch or 2-foot hole in the ground, and after the fire has died down and the stones are piping hot, get a stick and roll them into the hole, enough to cover the bottom well. Have ready some seaweed, and pile on a layer 4 or 6 inches deep. Lay the clams over the seaweed then on top of the clams place all the rest of the seaweed. Let steam for 30 minutes. Corn on the cob and potatoes can be added.” — ‘Long Island Seafood Cookbook,’ George Frederick (1939)

The traditional clambake cooked in a hole on the beach has a captivating romance about it. The notion of friends and family getting together, digging for the clams, collecting driftwood, stones and seaweed, digging the hole and building the fire sounds like great fun, but it is also a lot of work just to steam open some clams. If we didn’t have any pots and pans, a Weber grill or a beautiful deck (perhaps overlooking the bay), the old-fashioned clambake might seem more appealing. But since we do have all these modern conveniences, we might as well enjoy them.

As in clambakes from the past, the list of ingredients is highly variable. Here is a version of the clambake cooked in my backyard.

Clambake for 12 People
In this version, I started up my charcoal grill early and slow-cooked two racks of St. Louis style ribs and followed with bone-in chicken thighs (12 of them).

I then added some charcoal and opened the vents to produce a hot fire.

Using a large paella pan with a lid, I sautéed the shrimp, made the sauce, steamed the clams and mussels, and added the potatoes. After removing the large pan, I placed the corn on the grill to finish the meal.

The Ribs
Purchase two St. Louis style pork ribs.

Make a seasoning rub by combining 1 tablespoon five-spice powder, 2 teaspoons kosher salt and 1 teaspoon ground pepper. Rub the ribs with this mixture and let them sit while you build the fire.

Light a medium fire and push the coals to the sides of the grill.

Soak 2 cups of hickory chips in water for 30 minutes and drain.

Place a drip pan between the coals and place the ribs over the drip pan. Sprinkle the hickory chips over the coals. Put on the lid and almost close the bottom and top vents. This will keep the temperature low enough for slow cooking.

Make a “mop” for basting the ribs by combining 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon five-spice powder, 1/4 cup commercial barbecue sauce and 2 teaspoons kosher salt.

Cook the ribs at low heat (250 degrees) for 3 hours, basting with the mop every hour. Remove the ribs and set aside.

The Chicken
Season 12 bone-in chicken thighs with 2 teaspoons kosher salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Add some fresh charcoal to the grill and let it get hot. Spray the chicken with no-stick and brown skin side down for 5 minutes. Turn the chicken thighs over, cover the grill and reduce the heat by almost closing the vents. Cook for 45 minutes and remove.

The Shellfish
Peel and de-vein 3 pounds of large shrimp (16 to 20). Scrub 3 dozen littleneck clams and 2 pounds of mussels.

Add some more coals to the fire and place a large, shallow pan on the grill. Coat the bottom with 1/4 cup olive oil and allow it to get hot. Add the shrimp in batches to the hot oil and cook until just opaque, about 3 minutes, and remove.

Add to the drippings a diced onion, a thinly sliced bulb of fennel, a thinly sliced red bell pepper and 1 tablespoon minced garlic. Cook briefly and add 2 cups white wine and 1/2 cup Pernod liqueur.

Bring to a boil and add the clams. As they open, remove them with a pair of tongs and add the mussels. Cover, bring back to the boil and let the mussels open. Remove them with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add 2 pounds of small new potatoes, 1 can crushed tomatoes and 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes. Cook until the potatoes are tender and the sauce thickens. Add back the chicken, shrimp, clams and mussels and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the pan, cover and set aside.

The Corn
Shuck 12 ears of fresh corn, removing the silk. Brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. If necessary, add a few more coals to the fire and grill the corn, turning once, for about 5 minutes.

Cut between the ribs and place on a platter. Place the grilled corn on another platter. Serve the shellfish and potatoes in shallow bowls with the sauce. Add melted butter with a little minced garlic and lemon to dip the clams and spoon over the corn.

Note: The ingredients and amounts are very flexible. You can add a live lobster (or two) by splitting the lobsters, removing the claws and head sac and sautéing them at high heat before cooking the shrimp. Add the claws along with the potatoes.

At the end, cut the lobster into pieces or remove the tail meat and add it back along with the claw meat. The sauce, along with the juices from the clams and mussels, produces a very flavorful dish. You can use any kind of pan that will fit on top of the grill. A large sauté pan or a square roasting pan with lid are examples.

John Ross